The prospect of someone we love dying asks us to accept our own mortality and reflect on our own lives and this is not always very comfortable.
If you are diagnosed with a terminal illness or are close to death, family members and friends may act in a variety of ways as each will have a different response depending on how comfortable and accepting they are with death. There may be those who use avoidance and chat to you as though there is nothing out of the ordinary happening and never once acknowledge that there is anything amiss, let alone that you are close to dying! Others may be overly ‘nice’ to avoid their own discomfort in not knowing what to say.
You may find that when people come to visit they feel uncomfortable and are uncertain how to approach you. They may be very cautious and feel that they cannot come too close, as if there is a respectful distance that impending death demands. Understanding this, we can invite them to come closer and sit beside us or on the bed, letting them know that nothing has changed on the inside and we are the same person we have always been, we are just in a different situation and there is no need for fear or apprehension and dying is not contagious!
We may need to ask for physical closeness and touch. If we would like our visitor to help us with something or hold our hand we can ask and more often than not they are very willing to offer support and may find a greater sense of purpose in their visit and welcome that we are letting them know what we would like or need from them.
Palliative care nurses have said that, when appropriate, they encourage family members to lie on the bed with the patient and hug them. There is often an unspoken perception that death is somehow contagious, however it is more likely that family and friends are hesitant and unsure of the boundaries around physical contact and do not want to impose on us, so it is up to us to communicate what we would like and invite them to be close to us or hold our hand.
Initially this may be difficult if physical contact such as hugging friends has not been customary behaviour throughout your life. Now is the time to drop old patterns, listen to your body and go with that. If you feel like being held or touched, then it is up to you to speak up, toss pride, arrogance, old hurts and ‘what will people think?’ out the window and let Love be your only guide.
There are some people who are so uncomfortable with the dying process that they will not want to visit as they would prefer to remember you in times gone by, in ‘happier’ times. Let them know that they are very welcome to visit while, at the same time, respect that they may still choose to stay away.
Example from a daughter after her mother died:
“I had two brothers who behaved very differently around my mother when she was close to death. My mother had dementia and had become blind and in the last few years was not able to walk unaided, suffering from hip problems and frequent urinary tract infections. One brother did all he could to keep her alive, encouraging her to want to live as he could not bear to think of life without her. The other brother stayed away as much as possible with the attitude that if she were a pet dog she would have been put down some time ago and to him had already, in a sense, died.”
As the person who is dying, we may feel that we don’t want people to see us in our present condition, possibly frail, gaunt and in pain and not as chatty or outwardly beautiful or handsome as we once were. Approaching death can make some feel sorry for themselves with low self-esteem and low self-worth and that they are somehow letting others down. We can forget that friends and family may not pay much attention to our outer appearance in the final phase of life; they are coming to visit us, the person they hold dear.
Some people may want to visit for their own reasons, to say something that has been unsaid or to clear the air about something that happened in the past, as they feel we are near the end of life. We can get completely exhausted by visitors who come with their own agendas and may drain us in the process. We are able to feel this and during this final phase of life may choose to decline these visitors and stay true to ourselves.
Clear and honest communication is the foundation for healthy and loving relationships in every stage of our lives.
D&D Writing Team, Australia & UK
If you enjoyed this article you may also like to read:
Death & Dying – A Taboo Topic or a Joyful Normal Conversation