One of the hardest lessons we have as humans is on the subject of loss. As we all go through the many seasons of our lives there is no shortage of opportunities to experience the death of our friends, family members and beloved pets along the way. The ultimate loss we will all face is our own death. We are all dying, from the moment we are born, we are finite beings. Even if we have been good about getting our financial and health care affairs in order ahead of time, we still have to come to grips in the end with the often difficult emotional and spiritual work that happens as we come face to face with our own upcoming deaths.
The dying person quite often becomes the center of the family as the upcoming death approaches. The caregivers are important as they bear witness to the loved one’s final days. Most people never forget how the death happened and their own feelings as they were present during that time. Often families can be afraid to bring up anything emotionally challenging for fear of causing further pain to their loved one. However, the urgency of illness is a wonderful opportunity to push through blockage and talk openly and honestly.
The late author Elisabeth Kubler -Ross identified the 5 stages of dying , which are, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Pretty typically the dying person goes through these stages in order, but not always. It is important to respect wherever they are on their journey.
In my book, Soul Service: A Hospice Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care for the Dying (BalboaPress,2013 )www.soulservice.info I interviewed the dying who spoke frankly with me about what they wanted as their lives were ending. On the physical front a huge concern was good pain management, no one wanted to physically suffer. Thankfully with the advent of palliative care, a new medical specialty, no one has to. Everyone deserves adequate pain control, especially at the end of life. Most wanted to make certain that everything would be all right for their families after they died. One of the biggest gifts you can provide for your dying loved one is to reassure them that everyone will be fine.
Offering emotional support at the end of life could take the form of group support meetings where others are going through the same experience. Arranging for visitors can also be beneficial since the people I spoke with had no wish to die alone. They may not want to see visitors constantly but want to feel deeply connected to those family and friends they were close to. My late mother-in-law spent her last few days phoning all her relatives to tell them good-bye and assured them she was ready to make her transition, even joked with her visiting priest about "why am I still here when I have been ready to die for days now. "
Spiritual comfort was important to all I interviewed. Most were comfortable with their spiritual choices and did not wish others to impose their own religious views on them. All of those who were in the acceptance face of life felt a deep gratitude for their lives and the people around them. I recently spoke with a friend who suffered a major stroke. He is feeling that his life has been good and seems ready to face whatever might come. He plans to spend his time doing what he enjoys, playing his piano and reaching out to connect with friends.
A family situation where there was a bitter dispute about money owed was an challenging opportunity to put past resentments aside as the mother is on life support and could die at any time. This situation forced the family to re-evaluate their longstanding oppositions to communicating and allow the gravity of the situation to bring some communication and healing.
Often people wish to do something commemorative, like share their thoughts in a journal or life history interview, possibly videotaped that can be passed on through the generations. Some families have given end-of-life parties for their loved ones. Whichever individual way the family chooses to honor the death of their loved one or themselves it should always be respected. It is possible to have a good death experience, dying pain free, at peace surrounded by your loved ones.