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When someone you love is dying

The diagnosis of a terminal illness deals a profoundly shocking, staggering blow. In one instant, the patient's world turns upside down. He may believe that anger and grief will consume him, or he may deny his illness or try to bargain with God. He may worry about the path his illness will take and how he will manage in his final months or weeks. Will he suffer? What awaits him on the other side? How can he say goodbye to the people he loves? Will he be abandoned?

During this time, the person with a terminal illness needs the love and support of family and friends more than ever. Yet too often, people distance themselves from death and dying because they are afraid to face their own fear and pain. Or perhaps they can't bear to view the decline of a once-vibrant friend as illness brings her closer to death.

When someone you love is facing death, you may feel helpless or inadequate to provide any meaningful assistance. But you needn't worry – simply by being present, you can support your dying friend or family member in a way that no one else can. Accompanying your loved one on life's final journey is perhaps the most caring and compassionate thing you can do.

Understanding death and dying

Understanding what happens in death and dying may help you to overcome your fears and be more fully present for your loved one at the end of life. Start by learning everything you can about the terminal illness – you'll be less frightened if you know what to expect. Then explore what happens during the final stages of life. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's classic book, On Death and Dying, is one excellent resource, and you can find many more at your local library and on the Internet. A local hospice can also provide information.

How you can help
  • Be present. Clearly, this can take many forms, from sitting quietly to playing cards or watching a movie with your friend. The most important thing is to listen and take your cues from your loved one. If she wants to talk about her feelings, acknowledge them and encourage her, but don't push her to talk if she's not ready.
  • Look for practical needs you can fill. When families care for the dying at home, their energy is often stretched to the limit. Offer to cook a meal, do the laundry, or run an errand to lighten the load on both the patient and the family. You can also schedule a regular time for your visits to give the family a bit of respite from round-the-clock care.
  • Take care of yourself. In your desire to care for your loved one, don't forget to care for yourself. Allow yourself time to rest and to confront your own grief. If the dying person is under hospice care, ask a hospice worker about support programs.
A word about relationships

Family dynamics seldom change because a person is dying, but an imminent death may bring healing to relationships, not only between the deceased and family members, but also among the family members themselves. During this emotionally charged time, you can help by being sensitive to others and focusing on existing strengths in relationships while allowing room for change.

Renewed relationships, along with the opportunity to witness the transformation that takes place as a loved one prepares for death, are the things that lead many to describe the death and dying of someone close to them as one of the most spiritual moments in life. As you walk with your friend on this final journey, reflect on the gift of the time you are sharing, and help him to live his remaining days to the fullest.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Death and dying: a broader context section helpful too.

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