My father’s death in early 2011 of lung cancer brought about some unexpected gifts, hard though that experience was. And it was hard. Even though there’s no way around the hard, someone recently told me that the right kind of support can make all the difference in how someone experiences the end of life. Truth be told, the right kind of support can make all the difference for everyone involved.
During his illness, my mother was, simply put, incredible. In general, our family does not express love by outward shows of loving kindness, sentimentality or even physical affection. It is our way, although that has changed some in the last decade or so.
Mama and Daddy loved each other very much, although true to our family nature, that affection was expressed via teasing and nudges as much as anything. When it was clear our time together was short, Mama became much more direct in her expressions of love and attention. She was tireless in how she took care of Daddy, understanding his needs and meeting them without any prompting. She stood by him, honoring his wishes and making sure he got what he needed in the very best way possible. She made sure he was able to die at home, being cared for by his family and a couple of nurses hired at the end to help support her as much as him. She loved him with all her body, mind, and soul during those last few weeks.
I’d never seen my parents so full of love, as paradoxical as that may sound. To see my mother cradling my father’s head when he didn’t feel good, to see her holding his face in her hands telling him that she/we loved him, to see her hold him to try to calm his shaking—it was amazing to watch, to hear, to feel. She was fully present with him the entire journey. It was powerful.
I say this not only as a daughter, but also as a therapist. I’ve seen the way people deal with extreme pain, grief, and trauma, and it’s not always helpful, healthy, or selfless. People tend to try to avoid pain and loss in various ways, but Mom and Dad faced it together, fearlessly and courageously. It may sound trite, but I was so proud of them, especially her. Even though she was not sleeping and her life was being ripped out from under her, she stood firm and strong for him. Love truly prevailed.
And one of the best things about that is this: I know, absolutely and truly, that helped my father die with much peace and comfort. Love helped him transition on.
I’m not sure that my mother had a very clear idea of how she wanted things to be for my father, or, to be more clear, an articulated plan of how she wanted things to be. More importantly, she knew what my Dad wanted: to die at home (in his favorite recliner) surrounded by those who loved him and the land he loved. She took his cues, she responded with loving kindness, and she helped him live until he died. She was present and she listened, despite her own grief and pain.
How do we help loved ones who may be nearing the end of their lives? Show up. Listen. Respond. Feel, even if it hurts. Then show up, listen, respond, feel—even if it hurts. Repeat.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tammy Blackard Cook, LCSW, therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina
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