The last few weeks of 2014 seemed to bring with them much sadness for some friends of mine.
I know of a few friends with family members who entered hospice and passed away. Deaths around the holidays tend to cast a pallor over a time that we feel we are “supposed” to be happy and full of gratitude.
I lost both of my parents in the last five years, so I am well acquainted with the feelings that come up on the first holiday or birthday after a loss.
Coping with the impending loss of a loved one and the time after death is never easy no matter the time of year. The important thing is being aware of what you can do to support the dying person, those who are grieving, and yourself when you experience loss.
Many families avoid talking about death. It is an inevitable event for all of us, and nothing can truly prepare us for it. If you have never known someone with a terminal illness, it is difficult to know what you can do to ease the passing of the dying person.
When I walked into my mother’s room after she entered hospice care, I had never seen a terminal cancer patient. I was not prepared to see my mother helpless, thin, and slurring her speech because the radiation had affected her nerve function. There was nothing beautiful about her agony…nothing.
What was beautiful was the compassionate care she received from her hospice nurse, and the relief I saw in her face after a shot of morphine (named for Morpheus, the god of dreams, and a most merciful drug for the dying). The peace I saw come over her as her nurse made her comfortable was reassuring, because keeping her suffering to a minimum was, I realized then, the most important thing to do.
As apprehensive as I was before I entered her room, it was easy to come to her bedside and hug her. Seeing a beloved parent helpless—just as you were when they cared for you as a baby—will show you just how deep your love goes. You’ll do anything to ease their suffering and make them feel safe until they are ready to die.
When speaking with a dying person, listen. Let them talk if they wish. They may say things that make no sense. They may believe they see dead loved ones in the room. They may say they want to die or that they want to go home. Just listen. Go along with what they say. Be present.
Dying people do want to be touched—just use care and give gentle, reassuring touch. Provide them with small comforts (i.e., give ice chips, play soft music, open the shades and let sunlight come in). Be aware of the changes they are going through. My mother’s hospice social worker explained it best: Imagine your dying loved one is on the deck of an ocean liner while you and everyone they love is standing on the shore waving goodbye; you are losing one person, while your dying loved one is losing everyone they know. Their entire world is ending. For more on the final stages of terminal illness, the Kokua Mau hospice in Hawaii offers some good information.
Also, give the dying person permission to die. They may need to know in your words that you will be all right and that it is okay for them to leave. It took me two days to work up the courage to tell my mother that it was all right for her to die. One of the last things she said to me was that she had no longer had a question in her mind whether I would be okay with her gone. After that, she was peaceful, and I knew she was on her way to letting go.
It is hard to know what to say to a friend who has just experienced loss. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know that people say a lot of ham-handed things. Keeping in mind that those people do only want to provide comfort, and know that the best thing a person can say to the grieving is this: 1) Say “I’m sorry.” 2) Stop talking.
It may also help to familiarize yourself with the grief milestones. Remember that the three-month mark after the loss can be the hardest; most people have moved on, while the grieving person may still feel grief as strongly as the day after the loss.
I spent the first two months after both of my parents’ deaths in a euphoric state (a less well-known, but still normal symptom of grief) and the real sadness set in around three months. If you know someone who has experienced a loss, check in with them now and then, ask how they are feeling, and let them talk without judgement or offering unsolicited advice. Let them know you are present to their
sadness—while their heart will never fully heal, they will feel supported.
If you are grieving for the loss of a loved one, be present to whatever comes up. You may be surprised by the feelings that come up in the months that follow (i.e., the euphoria I experienced). Let yourself feel those feelings completely without judgement. Speak with a professional. Often hospice services offer counseling for the grieving. You do not have to go through this alone.
Remember that no matter how sad or lost you feel now, all of your feelings are temporary. The intense sadness will fade. One day you’ll smile out of genuine joy. One day you will be able to speak their name without a lump forming in your throat. Allow yourself to enjoy your life without guilt; your loved one wouldn’t want you to feel guilty for enjoying a movie or time with friends just because they are no longer here. Remember happy times and savor sweet memories of your loved one. As sad as loss can be, the best way to remember a loved one is to celebrate their life and go on living yourself. You
will be okay—be sure to be good to yourself too.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Abby B
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Hospice Care