There was a period in our recent history when death was moved from home to hospitals and funeral homes. Miracle drugs were invented, so people went to the hospital to live, even when those miracle drugs weren’t going to cure what ultimately afflicted people. But unrealistic hopes began to emerge to postpone and prevent long-term death. You wanted to go where people could do the most for you, even when the kindest thing might have been less extraordinary measures. It was not (and sometimes still is) not easy to find a place to be at the bedside in hospitals and nursing homes. So people often slipped to their deaths in quite antiseptic environments without the comfort of their families.
But now the pendulum is slowly receding to include bedside vigils, whether in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, or in the safe familiarity of your home. Now our problem is that we are a couple of generations away from knowing what to do while keeping the dying company.
It is an incredible privilege to be with people, to watch over them as they die. It is also scary at times because the dying process is under control and you are there only as a witness and comforter. Things don’t go any faster because they are hard to see and we wish for the end. They don’t slow down because we are so reluctant to let our loved one die.
Here are some simple things that, if you can focus on them, will hold you up and comfort your loved one when they pass away.
- Presence: This is the sweetest gift. Just be there. Whether you are a family gathered around the bed quietly exchanging stories, laughing, singing, praying or alone and bearing witness while there. You can read a favorite book or psalm, sing a favorite hymn, or tell them how important they have been in your life. People have said that it is useful to talk about people they know who have already left life, even to give a message to someone who is already on the other side. It can ease your step. But remember, the bedside of someone who is dying is not a place for family tension. Take it outside or put it aside, really put it aside, and be present with your loved one, until death, and with each other.
- Comfort: Make sure your loved one is comfortable. You know pretty quickly if they are agitated. There is no reason for the last hours of someone’s life to be marked by pain or discomfort. The palliative care movement has come a long way and works to ensure peace for people. It can be frustrating if you are not at home and have to chase people to administer medications, change positions, or find more / less blankets. But it is one of the sweetest gifts you will ever give. Dying is very hard work. You can help this way.
- Sound: Sound is apparently the last sense we lose. So, put on some music. To sing. Tell stories. Tell them how much you love them. Tell them about your grandchildren. Keep it quiet – you don’t want to bind them in this world, but you do want to assure them that life goes on.
- Open hands: This may be your most difficult task. You want people to know that it’s okay to be dumped. And you have to let it be. By the time someone is ready to die, it will be over. Asking them to stay longer is selfish. One of the greatest gifts of love is loving them in the next world.
People were shocked when I wrote about my mother’s death and described it as labor. But it was that. Dying is often difficult. Our bodies are made to prolong life and our instinct is for life. Many people work to death. His death is an amazing relief and liberation. It is a kind of birth, you believe whatever you believe about the afterlife. And for all the skeptics, I must say that I have never been with a dying person who did not relax in death with a peaceful look on their face. It’s actually very comforting, which you don’t know unless you stay the course.
All that said, some people cannot die with their loved ones in the room. They wait until we go out for something to eat, a breath of fresh air, or a trip to the bathroom. Many people see this as a failure on your part, but it is often just a sign of the depth of the ties between you. Sometimes love ties the heart long after the body is actually able to sustain life. Be open to the process. Do what you can, that’s all you can ask of yourself. However it unfolds, your wakefulness is a wonderful gift to you and your loved one through their agony and death. Your love for them and theirs for you will sustain you now and when they leave this kingdom.