There is nothing as wonderful or confusing as caring for the physical and emotional needs of someone at the end of life. It requires so much, but at the same time, gives back to the caregiver, for patients not only receive and caregivers not only give. Caregivers are witnesses. They witness the life that is unfolding in front of them. Just to be there to recognize the significance of people sharing their lives at this time and perhaps have an opportunity to shine a light on a part of a person’s life that may have gone unrecognized is truly a gift.
Most of us can understand and empathize about what is like to get married, graduate from college or to have a child. But the ability to offer the empathic, compassionate part of ourselves to someone going through the death experience is not truly understandable until we go through our own death experience. Being available to someone going through the death process is a dress rehearsal for our own death.
What does it mean to hold sacred space for someone else? It means that we are willing to take that journey alongside the dying person without trying to fix them or judge them or make them feel inadequate. We also acknowledge that it is their time to pass on to the next world and we assist them in making that transition by offering them compassion, empathy, love and unconditional support.
In my book Soul Service: A Hospice Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care for the Dying (Balboa Press, 2013) www.soulservice.info I conducted over thirty interviews with those on the front lines who are not only assisting in the death process but also the dying patients themselves and what they want and need from their loved ones and friends at the end of life. There were several things that were identified like the need to be free of pain with good palliative care. The dying want to be physically touched and to have their spirituality and belief system respected by others. The dying person would prefer to die at home surrounded by their loved ones. It was important to make peace with family members who there might have been disagreements with.
Hospice nurses who come to the homes of the dying are an excellent example of those who can show the family how to hold sacred space fort heir dying loved one. In her blog, Heather Blett talks about her family's experience with hospice. When her mother was dying she and her family gathered to be with her in the final days. The family did not know anything about the death process or how to support someone going through the final transition. Along came to them a gifted palliative care nurse Ann. Ann taught them how to inject their mother with morphine for pain management and she offered to do the more difficult task like bathing their mother. Ann also provided information about what to do with the body after the death had occurred. Ann encouraged the family to not call the funeral home right away to come take the body away. She told the family to sit with your mother as long as they needed to and to gather friends and family who would like to say their final goodbyes.
After her mother’s passing Heather Blett identified the lessons she learned from that experience that are worthy of sharing:
1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom
2.Give people only as much information as they can handle
3. Don’t take their power away. There may be times that you need to step in and make a decision but we don’t want people to feel useless and incompetent.
4. Keep your own ego out of it. We can all get caught in this trap where we think that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention. To truly support them let them be the guide of what is best for them.
5. Make them feel safe enough to fail. Withhold judgment or shame and let them know failure is simply part of the journey.
6.Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. When you hold someone in sacred space they safe to fall apart without fear of this leaving them permanently broken. They will feel encouraged and strengthened and not shamed.
7. Allow them to make different decisions and to have to have different experiences than you would. Sometimes people make choices that we do not understand, perhaps from a different cultural norm. When we hold sacred space we release control and honor their choices.
It will be the dying person, not the caregiver, who decides the depth to which he or she is willing to engage. The best way to serve anybody, but particularly those at the end of life is simply to be present with them, to allow them to be who they are. This is the highest and best gift you can give to someone.
Christine Cowgill, MS, CRC is the Author of Soul Service: A Hospice Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care for the Dying (Balboa Press, 2013) www.soulservice.info. Christine is a certified rehabilitation counselor with over ten years of experience in medical and vocational case management. She is also a licensed life and health insurance agent. Visit Christine Cowgill’s Amazon author’s page for further information. Christine has a Facebook page offering tips for caregivers at