Lately, I have talked with more than a few people about how they feel when they sit with someone who is dying. Although it is not easy for most of us to talk with someone whose death is near, I believe it is invaluable to interact with a person who is dying in a way that helps to maintain their dignity while offering them comfort. When we communicate in a way that shows we care and value the person, we send the message that their life was, is, and will always be important to us. This reinforces the most basic caring and human connection.
So, if you are in the position of visiting someone who is dying, try be “present.” I believe as a visitor, our purpose is to be comforting, concerned, calming, empathetic. Be there as a listener if the person wants to talk. If you are not sure — they may be tired or not in the mood to talk — simply ask, “Do you feel like talking?” As death gets nearer, our value as a visitor is to be present, providing comfort, and reassuring our loved one with soothing words and actions that help maintain their comfort and dignity.
Simple things can make a big difference. Try to sit so you can be at the person’s eye level, even if their eyes are closed. You can sit on the edge of the bed or pull up a chair. Everyone will die. It is just not yet your turn. When we are on the person’s physical level, we reinforce this fact non verbally.
If the person wants to talk, be as good a listener as you can. Avoid interrupting or finishing their sentences. Just attend; with sensitivity, interest, and an open heart. Respect silence. Thoughts and feelings may need time to form or maybe the person has said all that they need to say and don’t want to go further.
If the person you are with talks about something that is uncomfortable for you, silently recognize your own feelings, but don’t change the subject. Clearly, this person wants to talk about whatever it is. You can say “it is tough for me to talk about these things” but you can still convey that you are there for them. Listen with your total being. Unless you are specifically asked for your advice, don’t offer any. You can be there for them, responding by giving verbal, physical and emotional feedback, as they think things through. Sometimes words can be helpful, at other times, we need to respect a silent interlude. Not everyone who is dying wants to talk about dying. The quality of a person’s life is very important and it’s helpful to remember that we are visiting them while they are alive!
In my experience when visiting people who are close to death, I have learned that it can be kind and truly heart opening to remember moments we had together and share stories, and experiences. I like to remind the person of how they touched my life and to specifically share the impact they had (or have) on me; specifically, my thinking, my approach to the world, or to other people. When I am able to do this, I realize that I am validating our relationship. I am reminding them and myself that it was, is, and will continue to be meaningful and fulfilling. Over the years I have learned that tears of joy and sorrow mix freely. Remembering times when we laughed together helps a lot. I want them to know the many ways they made a difference. Who knows? It may be my words that help someone experience closure in some way.
To me, it is essential that the person I am with feel comforted, “held” in an emotional and spiritual way, so they do not feel alone. It also helps to tell the person that I love them, and will miss them.