"What can I do to help?" is the question most people ask when someone they care about is going through a difficult time. A loved one’s decline is one of the most trying experiences many of us will ever face. It can be difficult to know what to do or say to comfort them when dealing with one of the most testing times in your life.
While there is no single formula to follow, there are steps you can take that will enable you to support your loved one and help yourself come to terms with the knowledge that death is near.
9 Tips for Comforting a Dying Loved One
- Don't Ask How to Help
Although asking how you can help might be your first instinct, instead try to anticipate ways in which you can be useful. Your loved one has a lot on their mind and may not be able to identify or articulate the areas in which they need help. It's also possible that they might feel uncomfortable asking for aid. If you see a way in which you can provide assistance, just do it. Make a meal. Clean your loved one's bathroom. Your foresight and initiative will be greatly appreciated.
- Don't Make Them Talk About Their Condition
Remember that your loved one has talked endlessly to doctors about their illness, prognosis, and treatment options. If you were not a part of those meetings, it's okay to ask about general news, but resist the impulse to go into detail. More likely than not, this will discourage your loved one, make them feel less "normal," and undermine the positive attitude they’re striving for. When they are ready to share, they will initiate the conversation.
- Listen with an Open Mind and Heart
When your loved one is ready to talk, be ready to listen—even if the topic is one you'd rather avoid. The person may not need advice, but what they do need is a sounding board to help them think through the pros and cons of the options. They also need someone who won't fall apart when they talk about fears and concerns. Make your loved one feel comfortable by asking questions and affirming their feelings.
- Help Alleviate Their Fears
If your loved one is harboring fears about the dying process or death, it's important to address them. Gently encourage the person to talk about what they are afraid of or apprehensive about. Do what you can to alleviate those worries, whether that involves physical action or encouraging words.
- Help Them Maintain Their Dignity and Control
Although you might want to do everything you can for your loved one from the minute they receive their diagnosis, it's important not to hover or treat them as an invalid. Let them maintain a normal life by doing the things they can for as long as they can. Otherwise, they might feel as though they have already lost control of their life. Once your loved one does need aid to get from one day to the next, always be sure to ask their opinion and make sure their wishes are being followed.
- Reassure Them That Their Life Mattered
It is common for depression and doubt to set in when someone is facing the end of life, particularly if they have always been an "in-charge" person. Take every opportunity to express appreciation and admiration for their accomplishments and communicate what your relationship has meant to you. Make sure that your loved one knows how much you care for them, and encourage other family members and friends to do the same.
- Share in Their Faith
Whether your loved one is simply spiritual or a devout person of faith, they may be uncertain and apprehensive about what comes next. They might not feel comfortable initiating conversations about their beliefs. Look for subtle hints that they wish to discuss these matters and listen for openings you might be given. They may be comforted by the assurance that a divine being exists and that an afterlife awaits, whether it comes from you or you offer to bring in a chaplain to speak with them.
- Create a Peaceful Atmosphere
The last thing your loved one wants is to be surrounded by reminders of illness and death. Most patients prefer to stay in their own home throughout the end of life. If your loved one has to remain in a healthcare facility or hospice house, though, do everything you can to make their room feel like home. Keep the area free of clutter and harsh lights, try to hide or disguise medical supplies, and surround them with their favorite things, such as pictures, flowers, artwork, music, and above all, people.
- Give Them Permission to Go
This is one of the most difficult forms of support you can give your loved one. Even after a person's fears about the dying process have been addressed, some might still worry about leaving behind the people who love and care for them. Assure your loved one that everything has been taken care of, family members will look after one another, and they will be remembered and cherished. Let them know it is okay to let go when it is time. Removing any emotional obstacles that may remain will help open the door to a peaceful passing.
Donna Authers is the author of "A Sacred Walk: Dispelling the Fear of Death and Caring for the Dying" a new book that teaches baby boomers how to be caregivers with grace and dignity and how to prepare themselves and their loved ones for the inevitable.