How to Help When Someone is Dying

When someone you know is dying, it is natural to feel confused about how to help.  You may be experiencing your own emotional pain and feelings of uncertainty as well as feeling concern for the person who is dying.  You may feel uncomfortable because of your own attitudes, feelings, fears and lack of personal life experience with death, dying and grief.  This can leave you feeling useless and isolated.  The desire to make any pain there is go away and the human need to fix things can add to your confusion about how you can help.

You will probably have questions about what the dying person is feeling and how the family is responding to the illness.  You might be wondering what to tell everyone, especially children.

It is helpful to understand some of the thought processes that the dying person is experiencing.  This will help you support them through your presence.

Reactions of the Dying Person:

When someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, they may lose peace of mind and a sense of control.  The fear of the dying may involve fear of pain and suffering, fear for family and friends and fear about finances.  The dying person may also fear losing control over their body and the ability to care for one’s self.

Many people who are dying fear being alone.  There are also people that fear dying alone or in front of others.  Ask the patient if they want someone to be with them or if they need time alone.

Reactions of the Family:

There is a strong sense of disbelief and inability to believe that nothing more can be done.  As human beings, people hold onto the hope that there might be some kind of medical breakthrough in time to save the life of a loved one, advances in medical science reinforce that belief.

The family may feel helpless and out of control and often, in the attempt to gain control, they may even deny that there is a problem.  Some people may request that you not speak of the illness or talk in front of the person who is ill because of people’s innate need to take care of or shelter their loved one.

Most people who are dying know they are dying, even if they haven’t been told.  If you are willing to be open with them, you may be opening the door to an experience that can be healing for both of you.  Take your cues from the patient.

What About the Children?

It is important to include all children in the family.  You may want to protect them by not explaining what is happening, but it is important to be honest and open.  Children feel the stress and anxiety of adults and they worry that their actions and reactions are caused by something they have or have not done.

When talking with children, listen to what they are asking, when answering their questions, give short, truthful answers that are age appropriate.  Only answer the questions they ask.  For instance, if a child asks what is wrong with grandpa, you might answer by saying, “He is very sick.” If a child wants to know more, they will ask questions until their curiosity is satisfied.

Give children tasks they can do so they feel included and are helpful.  Children are a part of your life, they are part of your family and their loved one is dying, too.

How Can You Help?

  • Don’t let fear keep you from taking action.  You can never go wrong by letting people know you love them and want to help.  Feelings of anger, sadness, disbelief and anxiety are normal for you, the person who is dying and other family members.
  • Acknowledge the emotion that the dying person is expressing.  This helps them feel less isolated.  Let them know the emotions you feel as well, but keep your focus on the patient’s feelings and emotions.
  • Support the religious and spiritual needs of the patient and family.  Offer to pray for them and with them.  Be willing to contact their clergy or church family.
  • Offer assistance to the family.  Offer to sit with the patient, run errands, provide childcare, pick up prescriptions or take them to the doctor.
  • Allow the patient time to be alone.  Give them time to reflect on life.
  • Don’t render the person helpless.  In your zeal to help, you may take over.  Work with the patient and family to identify things the patient can do.  This will help the patient maintain a sense of control and independence.  This might include: choosing meals, washing their own face or brushing their own teeth.
  • Provide an environment where it is safe to cry.
  • Help the patient stay current with events, weather and world around them.  They may also enjoy music, poetry, reading or having someone read to them.
  • Humor the patient.  Patients need and want to laugh and humor is healing.
  • Advocate for the patient and family.  Encourage them to deal with and work on the issues facing them.  It may be helpful for everyone to talk about funeral and burial plans.  Help identify resources and prepare a support network.  Be sure that the information you share with them is credible and reliable.
  • Maintain normalcy for as long as possible.  Schedules provide structure and support.  Focus on the emotions of hope, joy and love.
  • If chosen, be supportive of Hospice Care.  Today, many people are choosing to die at home.  This keeps the patient in an environment that feels safe to them and gives them some sense of control and comfort.  Whether Hospice Care is something you would do or not, support the family in this decision.  Hospice Care can provide the patient and the family with a rewarding experience during the last days of life.  There are in-patient Hospice Care units that provide 24-hour care and encourage family involvement.  Hospice Care is available in nursing homes and assisted living communities.
  • Remember, you never lose a person unless you let go of your memories.  They will always be kept in your heart.
  • When the death occurs, work with the family to recall and build memories.  You might make a collage of photos or create a scrapbook of favorite stories.  That person was loved and always will be.  They have been a very important part of your life and they are a part of who you are.

Of all that you can do and give, your presence is the most important. Be present and listen. People can learn from the dying how to know more about themselves.