How to Deal with an Elderly Parent's Fear of Dying

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"I'm dying." These are words that most of us dread hearing from the people we love. However, death is an inescapable part of life—and if it hasn't happened already, chances are you'll be called upon to help a parent, spouse, friend, or other loved one through the valley. Yes, it can be a terrifying prospect. But it's also an opportunity: to help your loved one make the most of his final years, months, and days...to help him take the next step without regret...and to create priceless memories for you to cherish. Here are the seven common fears of dying – and how caregivers can handle them.

The Fear: The Process of Dying

  • Will death be painful?
  • How will I get through this?

How to Dispel It: Make sure your loved one knows that he will experience little or no pain unless he chooses to. Pain management is a service that hospice facilities are especially strong in providing. Staff members are trained to interpret what patients need using verbal and nonverbal cues, and they will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each option with patients and their families.

The Fear: Loss of Control

  • Must I give up independence?
  • Can I cope with being dependent on others?

How to Dispel It: Encourage your loved one to live a normal lifestyle for as long as possible—a life-threatening or terminal diagnosis does not change who the person fundamentally is. When it becomes clear that the person will need to accept care from others, arrange for her to meet and get to know her caregivers in advance, especially if medical professionals are involved. Becoming acquainted with them before accepting their services can alleviate discomfort and fear.

The Fear: Loss of Loved Ones

  • What is going to happen to them?
  • How will they manage without me?

How to Dispel It: Only the person's loved ones can alleviate this fear. Be willing to frankly discuss with your loved one what will happen to everyone when he dies, and do everything you can to reassure him that you will be okay. If children or dependent adults are involved, help your loved one formulate a detailed plan for their future care.

The Fear: Others' Reactions

  • What if I see fear in the eyes of others?
  • How do I respond to differences in their nonverbal communication and body language?

How to Dispel It: It's natural to feel fear and sadness when faced with the loss of a loved one, but after the initial shock has worn off, try to behave normally. Remember, it's not about you. Make sure that all caregivers are getting enough sleep, exercise, and emotional support, since the strain of not receiving them is evident in both appearance and demeanor. Lastly, ensure that all caregivers and visitors are told in advance what to expect. This way, displays of shock or fear can be avoided.

The Fear: Isolation

  • What if my visits with health care professionals and friends decrease?
  • Will I die alone?

How to Dispel It: Quite simply, make sure that regular visits with close friends, family members, and other volunteers are scheduled, especially if medical appointments have decreased because a cure is no longer possible. If you don't live near your loved one or cannot commit to frequent visits for other reasons, consider taking advantage of hospice care or church ministries. End-of-life care from these establishments includes comprehensive pain management and dramatically increases quality of life.

The Fear: The Unknown

  • What can I expect?
  • Will there be life after death?

How to Dispel It: Everyone, even the greatest self-professed skeptic, wonders what will happen to them after they take their last breaths. Addressing this concern has physical, emotional, and spiritual implications. Even if your loved one is not "religious," consider asking a priest, rabbi, minister, pastor, etc. to speak with the patient. Outside resources such as these can present a gift of peace, regardless of past doubts and skepticism.

The Fear: Life Has Been Meaningless

  • What did I accomplish during my life?
  • Did I have a positive impact on the world?

How to Dispel It: People who are leaving this world need to hear that they are valued and that they won't be forgotten. Don't miss the chance to tell your loved one how much you love her, and remind her of all the good she brought to your life. Reassure her that her life had purpose and meaning, and encourage others to do the same, either in person or through cards and letters. Also, take time to go through photo albums, share memories, and absorb life lessons from your loved one.


Donna Authers is the author of "A Sacred Walk Dispelling the Fear of Death and Caring for the Dying."

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6 Comments

Cheyenne, I think it's a lot like waiting for your kids to ask before you talk about the birds and bees, sometimes they never ask or ask too late. Find a way to bring it up as part of a normal conversation, reading the obit of a friend or public figure would be a good time to segue into a larger discussion.

I find the article itself only somewhat relevant. Most of the points really seem to pertain more to a mentally competent individual receiving a terminal diagnosis. Many elders lost independence and control of their lives years ago and are already isolated in their home or a facility. I'm also uncertain that someone with dementia gives any thought to whether their lives have been meaningful. And unfortunately far too often they are still dying alone and in pain, whether because they have no immediate family to advocate for them or the family is in denial.
I told my mom that we would do whatever we can to be with her and care for her at that time, but I wonder if the underlying fear of death is what keeps her here fighting long after her quality of life is worth the battle.
Very insightful article that I hope my son can read. I am one of those "seniors" who never planned "retirement". If you haven't yet, make sure that you do. It is not what I expected. I learned a great deal from this article myself.
Our dad is approaching his final days. We are flying out to be with him and have a much fun as possible while fixing his favorite meals. That's the best thing we can think of to do for him.