How do you behave around a dying relative or friend?
Imagine that your relative or friend has been rushed into hospital and quite possibly you have no idea what is wrong with them. Naturally a large part of your conscious mind keeps on telling you how wonderful modern medicine is, and that the person is going to be okay now they are in the right place to get treatment. In the meantime your subconscious mind is planting seeds of doubt that say 'what if they aren't going to be okay, what if they are dying?'
This is a scary situation that many of us have suffered, and whilst in the majority of cases the family member or friend will be treated by the Doctors, and will be fine, (probably living on for many years afterwards), there are sadly occasions where this is not the case and the person will be diagnosed with a terminal illness that may previously not even have exhibited any significant symptoms. This is what happened to me when my first Husband was rushed into hospital with severe abdominal pains at the age of 48. You can read the full story in my Hub called Bowel Cancer Stole My Husband at 48 Years Old. This article is not about that however, or at least not directly. This article is about how you talk to and act around the diagnosed person after the terminal diagnosis, and the mistakes some people tend to make when around the dying person.
The Mistakes People Make
The main mistake people tend to make when they are told their family member or friend is dying and nothing more can be done to save them, is they immediately fall apart and panic. If the dying loved one picks up on this they end up feeling they are the one that has to be strong for everyone around them, and the end result is 'who is going to be strong for them?' This is a tip I was given by one of the Doctors looking after my Husband when he had been diagnosed with advanced Bowel Cancer (Colon Cancer).
Another mistake the family or friends tend to make is to avoid the dying person as much as possible. I suspect this is largely because they really don't think they will know what to say or how to behave around their dying relative or friend. This is a tragedy when you consider that the terminally ill person is going to need the support of all of their loved ones, including friends as well as family. They may well be terrified, but afraid to show their fear in case this makes things more uncomfortable for those closest to them. The last thing they need is to find themselves largely alone, with no-one they can confide in about how scared they are, or how worried they might be about their family members.
Don't spend your time around them in floods of tears and voicing how you 'just don't know how you will cope without them'. This just isn't fair and only puts more pressure on the dying person, and also makes them feel 'guilty' for being terminally ill. Basically you need to grit your teeth and put on the bravest face you can for their sake. Cry by all means, but do it in private and away from your sick relative or friend. In my case the tears stayed mostly under control while I struggled through two weeks of watching my Husband wither away in front of me. I survived on adrenalin until he passed, but then the tears flowed freely, held at bay somehow by the sheer need for me to stay strong for his sake.
Please don't keep your young children away from the dying loved one. This is an important lesson in life for them to learn, i.e. the realities of death. It would also be terribly cruel to stop the terminally ill person from having a chance to spend time with the children they love too, and to have a chance to say their goodbyes in their own way.
What You Can Do To Help
So what can you do to help? Well you might be surprised just how much of a difference you can make to that person. Here are a few suggestions in no particular order:
If they live alone and have any pets, offer to look after their pets for them and promise to either offer them a home or to make sure they get good homes when the family member or friend finally passes away.
Give them 'permission to cry'. Too many terminally ill people feel like they mustn't show weakness or fear. By telling them it is 'okay to cry' and 'let it out', you give them the chance to feel they don't have to 'put on a brave face' for everyone around them, whether they have a good cry in private, or with you for support.
Encourage them to enjoy the time they have left by taking part in activities that appeal to them, whether it is a few hands of poker with their friends or playing some golf, whatever they want to do that is within their capabilities and that will bring them pleasure, smiles, and even laughs in the time they have left.
Don't be afraid to laugh with them. The last thing anyone dying needs is to spend their final weeks or months with everyone around them afraid to smile or giggle in case it seems like they don't care their friend or relative is dying. They need to laugh and see other people laughing too. Take them to a comedy club, tell them jokes, reminisce over funny stories from their past (and yours for that matter). It is true that 'laughter is the best medicine' in more ways than one.
If they are hospital, a hospice or housebound, find out what foods they really love and take meals or snacks consisting of these foods in to them, (naturally check with the Doctors before you do this in case certain foods are definitely not a good idea). In my Husband's case he wanted tinned pears, and although he only managed one chunk of pear, he was really pleased to be able to fulfil this craving.
On a similar subject to above, why not offer them some wine or beer? I have been in hospitals recently where they actually have a wine list! If a person is dying anyway why shouldn't they have a glass of wine or beer, heck, why can't they have a cigarette! If the diagnosis is that the person is terminally ill and probably won't have much longer to live, then I strongly believe they should be able to do what they want within reason. It may shorten their life slightly, but if it is by a matter of hours or a day or two, then at least they got quality of life over quantity. It is selfish for us to deprive a dying person of small luxuries in order to (possibly) keep them alive a short time longer so we gain a few more hours with them, especially when we have no idea if it actually would have made any difference. Naturally this conversation needs to be had with both the Doctor and the dying patient first.
In the case of terminally ill ladies, they may well feel very unattractive and sickly looking. If you can try to take them some make-up/cosmetics and help them to apply them. You can also help them to do their hair and nails nicely so they feel comfortable facing people.
Offer to drive the relative or friend to places they have always wanted to visit, or places they already have fond memories of from their past (assuming they are fit enough to travel).
If they do have much loved pets at home but are themselves hospitalised or in a hospice, try to get permission to bring their pets in to visit them. Many hospitals and hospices will be very understanding and compassionate about this and will try to accommodate the wishes of the terminally ill patient.
Reassure the dying family member or friend that you will 'be there' for their surviving family members after they have passed on. This is usually something they will be very concerned about.
Consider their spiritual beliefs if any. If possible ask them if they wish to talk to ministers from their faith, and don't assume their faith is the same as yours, e.g. whilst you might want the 'last rights' read to you ultimately, if they are a Pagan they will not be interested in this, and nor will they want visits from neighbourhood Priests.
Of course one of the most important things you can do is simply listen, be there for them, and spend as much time with them as you can allowing them to say or talk about whatever they need to in order to cope with what they are going through.
I have probably missed out various other important things you can do for your dying friend or relative, but I am optimistic that I will get comments here that will offer other suggestions that will enrich the content of this hub, and hopefully offer a place to turn to for anyone faced with this daunting challenge. Whatever happens remember, the person dying is still the same person they always were, and they simply want to spend time with those they love and not be treated any differently, (in most cases at least).