Helping Loved Ones Near the End of Life

Older couple kissingMy 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.

Related articles:
A Season of Grieving and Transformation
How to Be With Someone Who Is Grieving
Care for the Caregiver: After the Loss

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tammy Blackard Cook, LCSW, Grief, Loss, & Bereavement Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Melanie

    July 10th, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    What upsets me the most about so many end of life scenarios is that the wishes of the patient are not heeded and families end up doing what they feel is best for them and not the loved one who is suffering or dying.
    I have seen so many cases where elderly people are moved from their homes either into hospice or some other facility when all they ever wanted to do was to die with grace and dignity at home. Many of them are not allowed even this one thing because of the hardship that this imposes on some family members. I hope that when my time comes that my familiy will respect my wishes in the same way that I know I will try to honor theirs.

  • Finn

    July 10th, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    For my dad, he just wanted someone to listen to him when it got close to the end. He had so many stories still left to tell, and what he loved most was to have his family around him so that he could share all of that that he still had within him. It almost seemed like he had this need to share those stories so they would not die with him. He was such an animated and gifted speaker, and I think that giving us these yarns and tales were something that he saw as his final gift to us, always trying to leave us at the end of the story with a smile on our faces. That’s how he wanted us to remember him too, and to leave us so that hopefully more than anything else we could think of him more with smiles than we did with tears.

  • tyna

    July 11th, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    I think that for a lot of us we start to let our own grief get in the way of making rational decisions.

    We are tired, worndown, and perhaps not capable of thinking the right way.

    We make mistakes, and should not be made to feel guilty if we act in a way that we feel is in the best interest of our family even if that is not the popular choice.

    I don’t condone abuse but if you sincerely think that you are making the best decision for the family, then you should not be made to feel ashamed of that.

  • Tammy Blackard Cook

    July 11th, 2012 at 5:29 AM

    Thank you, Finn and Melanie, for your comments. Finn, your Dad sounds like he was a great guy–thinking of you all as he was preparing to leave this life. Melanie, all too true. . . death is scary to most of us that we often don’t want to face it–our death or those we love.

  • tiara

    July 11th, 2012 at 8:45 AM

    my grandfather passed away after months of being confined to his bed and I must say not only did my uncles and mom take great care of him but also gave him everything that could please him in any little way.he became quite frustrated towards his end days but they never gave up.they were there together like true siblings and helped their father pass away in peace and in his own house.I’m sure he had a smooth journey to heaven thanks to them standing by.and I’m proud of my mom and uncles for it.

  • Skylar Johnson

    July 11th, 2012 at 11:58 AM

    I watched my own parents struggle with making these kinds of decisions regarding their own parents and what made it a lot easier for them was that each of my grandparents had written out specific instructions about how they wished for the end of life to be. A living will I suppose you might call it. That gave my parents a guideline to follow when the time did come so that they could be sure that they were following their wishes.

    Sometimes it is easy to forget that this is not about us, that it is about someone else, and that we would wnat someone to look out for us and the things that we wanted to see happen when our own lives were ending. I simply encourage support and respect for those last wishes.

  • t.mills

    July 11th, 2012 at 1:48 PM

    never been in a situation like this but frankly I wouldnt be able to handle things so well.death by itself creates fear in my mind and just the thought of losing a loved one scares me.

    what can one do to be strong in such a situation?is there anything we can do to ‘prepare’ ourselves?

  • Tammy Blackard Cook

    July 12th, 2012 at 5:14 AM

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I love reading your stories! @t.mills, what a good, tough question. . . others want to chime in? Death creates fear in all our minds, I believe. My father was diagnosed with cancer about nine years before he passed away. Mercifully, his cancer was in remission until about the last four or five months–and it was only really intense for about 4-6 weeks. (Read my other post “A Season of Grieving and Transformation” for more info about this.) So, I know we were lucky in that this wasn’t a months- or years-long, drawn-out process. More to your question though, lung cancer is almost always a death sentence–and most people don’t get nine years as my Dad did. When he was diagnosed, it was too painful for me to think about, so I chose not to. It was too hard. I’m saying, yes, the thought of losing someone I loved scared me to death–so much so, I chose not to think about it. I figured we’d face it when it came. Until then, we lived each day and embraced the life in front of us. (I wrote another post that talks about this a bit. . . ) Live your life each day and face things as they come. Death, of course, comes to all of us eventually, but I/we need to live until we die. Isn’t that the point? Lastly, I read lots about Death and Dying and delved further into spiritual life when my Dad was dying. It brought my comfort. Still does.

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