“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. 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 at some point. Yes, it can be a terrifying prospect, but it is also an honor. This is a valuable opportunity to help your loved one make the most of their remaining time on earth, to assist them in taking the next step without regret, and to create priceless memories for you to cherish once they’re gone.
There are some hurdles throughout this process, though. The end of life often stirs up many powerful emotions, among the most poignant being anxiety. Because death is different for everyone and we know so little about what happens after a person passes, patients and family alike are often overwhelmed by fear of the unknown. Below are the seven most common fears associated with dying and how caregivers can help console their loved ones at the end of life.
Fear of the Dying Process
Apprehension about the actual dying process typically stems from a fear of pain and discomfort. People at the end of life may wonder, “How will I get through this?”
Make sure your loved one knows that they will experience little or no pain unless they choose to. Hospice care providers specialize in providing pain and symptom management for terminal patients. Staff members are trained to interpret what patients need by reading verbal and nonverbal cues, and they will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each option with patients and their families.
Fear of Losing Control
Some individuals who are dying are able to continue leading a relatively active and normal life until the very end. But those who are very ill typically must rely on family members and caregivers to help them with activities of daily living (ADLs) in their remaining months, weeks or days. Many patients are uncomfortable with the thought of depending on others for supervision and assistance, and this is normal.
To help dispel this fear, encourage your loved one to stick to their usual routine for as long as possible. A life-threatening or terminal diagnosis does not change who the person fundamentally is. When it becomes clear that they will need to accept care from others, arrange for them to meet with and get to know their caregivers in advance, especially if medical professionals are involved. Becoming familiar with nurses and aides before their full services are required can alleviate discomfort and fear.
Furthermore, if you haven’t already discussed end-of-life wishes with your loved one, time is of the essence. Most people execute a living will, do-not-resuscitate order (DNR), physician orders for life-sustaining treatment (POLST) form, or other legal document to spell out the type of care they DO and DO NOT wish to receive. Discussing these matters and putting them into writing while your loved one is still competent to make decisions will help them feel more confident that their wishes will be respected even if they are unable to convey them.
Fear of Leaving Loved Ones Behind
Some people at the end of life wonder less about their own predicament and more about how their loved ones are coping and how they will handle the loss. They may wonder, “What is going to happen to my family? How will they manage after I’m gone?”
Only those closest to the dying person can alleviate this fear. Be willing to frankly discuss with your loved one what will happen to everyone once they die, and do everything you can to reassure them that you will all be okay. If children or dependent adults are involved, help to formulate a detailed plan for their future care.
Fear of Others’ Reactions
The focus during a loved one’s end-of-life experience is to keep them as comfortable and relaxed as possible. This is not an easy process to go through or to witness, and emotions usually run high. It’s natural to feel fear and sadness, but after the initial shock has worn off, try to behave normally. Relish this time together instead of dwelling on the inevitable loss. It is okay to express your true emotions but remember that this experience is not about you. Be respectful of your loved one’s need for peace and support.
Make sure that all caregivers and family members (yourself included!) are getting enough sleep, healthy meals and emotional support. The effects of going without these necessities is evident in both appearance and demeanor and may cause your loved one additional worry. Lastly, ensure that all caregivers and visitors are told in advance what to expect. This will help to avoid reactions of shock or fear that can be unsettling for the dying person.
Fear of Isolation
Fear of any kind typically causes us to long for the company and reassurance of those we love most. The possibility of facing the end of life alone would cause anyone considerable anxiety, and this is a common concern for many seniors. They wonder if their friends and family will come to visit them and if they will continue being attentive and supportive until the very end.
Quite simply, make sure that regular visits with close friends, family members and volunteers are scheduled. Ensure the senior feels loved and important, but avoid exhausting them with nonstop visitors. If you don’t live near your loved one or cannot commit to frequent visits for other reasons, consider taking advantage of hospice care providers, volunteer organizations or church ministries. End-of-life care from these groups may include regular visits from nurses, aides, clergy, musicians or volunteers that can dramatically increase a patient’s quality of life.
Fear of the Unknown
Will there be life after death? What can I expect? Everyone has dwelt upon these questions at one time or another. Even the greatest self-professed skeptic wonders what will happen 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 come speak with them. Outside resources such as these can offer a gift of peace, regardless of past doubts and skepticism.
Fear That Life Has Been Meaningless
People who are leaving this world need to hear that they are valued, that their accomplishments had a positive impact on the world and that they won’t be forgotten. Don’t miss the chance to tell your loved one how much they mean to you and remind them of all the good they brought to your life. Reassure them that their 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.