Few of us know what to do or what to say to our parents and loved ones who are close to death. We often try to avoid all discussions about the topic and take the easy way out, falsely reassuring them that they are doing well and will get better. Recently I read a book entitled “Final Gifts” by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley which has given me new insights into the process of dying, what to listen for, what to say and what to expect from our parents who are about to die.
Callanan and Kelley have tended to the terminally ill for more than a decade as hospice nurses. In their book they relate many touching stories of their experiences with patients at the end of life. Through these stories I began to appreciate the many ways that the dying communicate their needs, reveal their feelings and even choreograph their final moments.
The authors pose a very important question, “ Is it possible to find anything positive in this devastating event? Can this remaining time be used to share treasured moments of living, while coping with the many losses death brings?” Here are four recommendations they make that will help you:
1. Dying people often share messages through symbols or suggestions that we often misinterpret as “hallucinations” or “confusion”. These messages fall into two categories: attempts to describe what they are experiencing while dying or a request for something they need for a peaceful death. Pay attention to everything they say. There may be an important message in any communication however vague or garbled.
2. Your parent should get as much information as she wants about the changes taking place in her body and the likely scenarios of her death. She should be given the opportunity to maintain some control over her life by making decisions about medication, treatments and even the site of her death.
3. In the last days of her life your parent will probably go through five stages of dying, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Don’t try to give advice or solutions. Just listen and accept.
4. Don’t be afraid to talk about death with your parent. Avoiding the subject may be interpreted as not caring. Don’t force the topic if they’re not ready to talk about it. But don’t shy away from it either. You might open with a question like “Can you tell me what’s happening?” Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. Remember what is often harder to forgive is the failure to do or say anything.