Because of deep fears about death and our own mortality, it can be difficult to be authentically present with those who are dying. When we’re not keenly present, we create an uncomfortable distance between ourselves and the person dying. Platitudes such as “You never know, maybe you’ll get better” or “Don’t talk like that” only pull us away such that without meaning to, we limit the relationship between ourselves and those leaving us.
Having worked for two decades with those confronting serious illness and death, I have come to realize that the needs of the dying and their caregivers are never predictable. I have learned to follow their lead in lieu of following an agenda that I deem important. And while I make suggestions about the end of life, I have learned to respect whatever response I get. Being fully present to those who are dying requires diligence, as it is imperative to avoid judgment. At times I have encountered denial, which I have learned to respect while gently suggesting or informing. At other times, I may end up sitting with someone who wants to talk or rage or sob. In these instances, I follow their lead and validate their feelings. It’s also important to be tuned into one’s own discomfort so as not to act on it and work it through at another time.
When working with the dying, it’s useful to ask oneself the question “Whose needs and agenda am I here for, mine or the person dying?” This may lead to discomfort, discomfort that must gently be set aside so that we can address the needs of the dying.
We all die alone. Until that moment, we are connected to the people around us, people we love and care about. If, as caregivers, we allow our discomfort to impose itself and get in the way, we may lose the opportunity to be with those we care about at a time when we are most needed.
Like most people, I become frightened when I think of my own death. When I focus on it, I fear the unknown and anticipate the loss of my ego. Fortunately, these thoughts and feelings recede during the hectic process of living my life. But when I’ve been confronted with the death of those in my care or in my personal life, I often must deal with my own issues. I found, however, that as I worked with patients and loved ones and learned to set aside my own fears and anxieties, that I became less afraid.
I have also found that being fully present and engaged with the dying limits the regret and guilt that so often is a part of bereavement. By being conscious of our own fears and needs, and by setting them aside as someone experiences the end of life, we experience less of a rupture when the physical bond, our sharing of life, is broken.
Because the experience of dying is solitary, it can be overwhelmingly isolating. We can, however, foster intimacy by empathizing and being present to whatever the dying person is experiencing or expressing, be it anger, depression, fear, denial, hope, hopelessness, acceptance, peace, etc. When we achieve this, we can help whomever we are caring for feel less alone.
It is often difficult to avoid acting out our own fears while being fully present to the dying. While we all die and die differently, most of us deny death in a million different ways. Without this, we would be overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. By being attuned to the dying and responding to their needs instead of trying to appease our own needs and feelings, we enrich the relationship with those who are leaving us. We owe ourselves and the people in our lives an environment in which they can reach the end of their lives in as rich a way as possible.