We need to start by overcoming our own fear of talking about death.
Terminally ill patients receive support from their family, from the medical team, and from other people who offer to visit or stay at their bedside. But, who supports the family members, who are going through the very painful experience of preparing to lose a loved one?
These family members and caretakers are in a difficult position, because while they are dealing with their own feelings regarding the sickness and death of their loved one, they also need to stay strong and be present to support the person who is dying. How can they console the dying person when they themselves feel emotionally affected, and perhaps even confused, by the idea of losing their loved one soon?
We all end up in this position sooner or later, usually when our parents reach the end of their time on this earth, but when someone we know is losing a loved one, we sometimes feel uncomfortable and awkward and because we don’t know what to do or say, we don’t say anything. This, however, can come across as inconsiderate.
Show an interest
The first step — even before listening to what these people want to say — is to draw near to them. Some people might prefer to close their eyes and not talk about the situation, but making an act of presence, being available at a time when someone you know is going through this difficulty, is the first necessary step.
We don’t need to pressure ourselves to find the perfect words of consolation. It’s enough if we can give the person the opportunity to speak about themselves and what they’re going through, their fears and their feelings.
The simple question, “How are you feeling?” is a good start. Make sure you ask open questions that can start a conversation, and let the person answer at their own pace.
When we listen attentively to someone who’s going through the loss of a loved one, we’ll discover the feelings that are being stirred up in their heart, such as bitterness, rebellion, sadness, regrets, and fear. Let them express themselves, and cry if they need to.
This is a good way to console them, give them peace, and encourage them. Show that you’re present and available. Tell them that, yes, this is a difficult trial to overcome, but you’re there at their side. Showing empathy at this moment means being ready to partake in that person’s sufferings.
The more the person feels our empathy, the more they will open up and talk about what’s really going on with them. This attitude isn’t always easy to practice because consoling someone who’s dealing with the imminent death of a loved one brings up the idea of our own death, and that can be unsettling.
What can we say?
Once we’ve adopted this attitude of attentive openness, and once we’ve listened, we need to know what to say. An expert who takes care of terminally ill patients in palliative care at the JALMALV Federation in Orleans, France, offers some advice to help us provide some consolation and relief to people who are suffering the imminent death of a loved one:
Encourage them to talk sincerely with the patient. Often, people fall into a vicious circle: the family doesn’t dare talk with the dying person, because they want to protect them from the bad news, and at the same time, the patient doesn’t dare talk to the family, for the same reason. Consequently, it can be helpful to encourage the loved ones of the dying patient to talk with them, to deal with the issues in depth, and to do so spontaneously and naturally.
Anselm Grün, a Benedictine monk of the Abbey of Münsterschwarzach in Germany, writes in a recent book (not yet translated into English):
The person who is helping them through this process encourages them to stay at the side of the dying person, to talk to them or hold their hand. He assures them that they will receive as a gift this fact of having helped the sick person and having deepened their relationship. The fact is, this is often an unexpected opportunity for reconciliation, a chance to say words of love and affection to each other that they hadn’t dared say in their entire lives.
Help those close to the terminal patient to free themselves of feelings of guilt. Often, family members close to the dying person regret not being present enough. They often say, “I should be there more often,” or, “I don’t visit often enough.” We have the opportunity to relieve them of their guilt, emphasizing above all that the sick person also needs to be alone sometimes with him or herself in the face of their illness.
Another source of guilty feelings is not being with the dying person at the moment of their death. For some people, this can seem like a real tragedy, especially if they’ve been dedicated body and soul to accompanying the person at the hospital or hospice. Once again, it’s important to know that terminally ill patients frequently allow themselves to die precisely when their son or daughter has gone out of the room to get a cup of coffee; this can make it easier on the conscience of the person who missed the moment of death.
Encourage the sick person’s loved ones to reassure the patient. Given that the sick person may feel anxious at the idea of leaving their spouse or children all alone, it’s important to put them at peace telling them that these issues are already taken care of, and that they can leave in peace.
Lastly, we shouldn’t hesitate to suggest that the sick person’s loved ones pray together for the patient. Prayer is an inexhaustible source of relief and grace. Whether or not they are believers, or practicing their faith or not, invite them to pray with you! And don’t you forget to pray for them, that they may have the strength and courage to go through this difficult moment calmly and peacefully.