by Dr. Pat Hayes
It’s not easy to know how to relate to someone who is dying. Do we express our own sadness at the situation? Do we pretend nothing is wrong? Is it appropriate to tell jokes and act silly like we used to do with our loved one? Should we visit more often to show our support or visit less often so as not to tire them out? And what about our own fear and discomfort? Do we give in to those feelings and keep our distance?
These are questions everyone struggles with. I recently saw a helpful article by the American Hospice Foundation that offered suggestions about how to support someone at the end of life. Their list was based on what the dying themselves had requested.
Here are the requests of dying people that struck me especially strongly:
- Be honest with me. I can tell when your feelings or actions are insincere.
- Laugh with me; cry with me. Allow me to express intense emotions.
- Don’t feel sorry for me. Your understanding helps preserve my dignity and pride.
- Touch me. I want to be accepted despite the way I may look. Inside, I’m still the same person you always knew.
- Let me talk about my illness if I want to. Talking helps me work through my feelings.
- Let me be silent if I want to. Sometimes I don’t have much energy and I just may want your silent companionship. Your presence alone can be comforting.
- Space your visits and calls. Consistent support is very helpful.
- Offer to help me with simple chores. Routine jobs are often difficult to accomplish.
- Continue to be my friend. Don’t let my illness overshadow all the good times we’ve shared together. I know this is hard for you too.
I noticed in all these requests that the emphasis is on companionship and understanding. In my own experience with the dying I have seen that it is very important to them to have loved ones to interact with. When you’re supporting a dying loved one, you don’t have to have deep conversations to show your love. Those kinds of conversations are great if they happen, but if they don’t, it’s OK, too. The dying just want to be included in the everyday world of the living and not isolated.
When my own mother was dying, my siblings and I spent much time with her. We would take turns sitting by her bedside, and we would talk amongst ourselves about everyday things. She would listen and join in occasionally. Sometimes she would doze and then wake up to our conversation again. There was an inclusiveness to my mother’s last days, a continuing of the life we had always shared with her. It is a memory I cherish.
Pat Hayes, MD, is a retired physician from Cortland County. He serves on the board of directors for the Hospice Foundation of Cortland County and was the board president in 2015. He currently writes a monthly column with Jackie Swift on hospice for the Cortland Standard. This article first appeared in the September 2, 2017, issue of the Cortland Standard.