If you have a friend or loved one who is dying and don’t feel you know what to do, here are some practical suggestions for things you can do to feel more useful and more at ease with the situation. These suggests are also gifts for the dying person and can help them feel more peaceful and appreciated as they go through the labor of dying.

Dying calls for truth in a more fundamental way than any other experience we go through. Families sometimes feel awkward talking about death to their loved ones. If a family can have discussions about the forthcoming death of their loved one, it makes it easier on everyone, especially the person who is dying. Sometimes those near death want to talk about their circumstances, but they don’t want to upset their family. This puts them in the sad position where they can’t talk honestly to the people they are closest too.

Honest conversations about how the dying person wants to be cared for during their final days and hours, can bring great relief to their family and friends. As death draws near the family and friends will feel relief because they know the dying person is being cared for as they wanted. Allowing your loved one to express their last wishes can bring comfort to them because it helps them feel they have a sense of control and personal power.

Conversation starters:
• “I know you are very ill and may not have long to live. I want to know how you wish to be cared for now, during your final days, and after your death. I love you and it would mean a lot to me to be able to care for you in the ways you want.”
• “Dad, we can talk about anything. It may be hard, but we can get through it. It matters to me what you’re going through. How can we be helpful to you? What would you like from us right now?”

There are very clear signs of impending death. Two common signs are that the skin becomes mottled, and breathing becomes difficult or comes in gasps. If the family knows what to expect as someone dies, they are less likely to be anxious and confused, and think that every change is a medical emergency. [See article Signs of Dying] This knowledge helps the family be more peaceful and helps to create a more peaceful environment around the person who is dying. In many spiritual beliefs, creating a peaceful environment is one of the most important things that friends and family can do for a dying loved one.

Conversation starters:
• To caretakers of the dying person: “I was reading the other day about what happens to the body during the dying process. There are common symptoms that are quite normal and to be expected. It’s good for us to know about them so that when they occur we won’t be surprised or upset. Knowing things in advance will help us be more calm and less frightened.”

Story: An Austin, Texas family wanted to participate as much as possible during their mother’s dying process. The family educated themselves by reading materials about what to expect when someone dies. This helped them feel more comfortable with the process which lead to a more peaceful environment. Also, since they knew the final stages of dying they were able to prepare themselves emotionally and mentally for when death did occur. The family felt that this education made the difference between a calm and sacred passing and one that could have been filled with confusion and anxiety.

Share your stories and rememberings with your loved one who is dying. This lets them know their life has had meaning and significance. It allows them to see how they have touched other people. If they are still able to speak, ask them to tell their stories or important lessons they have learned so it can be passed down to the younger family members. This lets the dying person know they are still valued and appreciation. Be spontaneous and speak from a place that is real and alive for you.

Conversation starters:
• I really loved it when I remember ______.
• One of my favorite memories is when we ______.
• Is there anything you have wanted to tell me?
• Can you tell me about the time ____.

Sometimes there are no words to communicate the deep feelings of the heart. Just sitting beside a loved one – just your presence -- can be comforting to them. Our presence tells the dying that they are not alone and that someone who cares is there for them. It affirms the value of the person. If you can do no more than actively listen to your loved one who is dying, you very probably will have done the thing that matters most. And sometimes a gentle, loving touch can impart more than words can.

Story: One of the most tender moments of my hospice volunteer work was watching an elderly couple as the wife lay dying. The wife was sleeping most of the time and her breath was coming in gasps (which is one of the final stages of dying). The elderly husband, dressed in nice pants and a clean starched white shirt, was sitting at the bedside with his chair facing his wife so his face was right in front of her face. He was just looking at her, waiting. I asked if I could get him any food or help in any way. He politely said no and went back to watching his wife. I notice many families watch TV or do anything but be present with the patient. This elderly gentleman, was present for his wife until her last breath.

Dying can be difficult business. If a family member is sobbing and clinging to the dying one, it creates anxiety for the person going through the dying process. Tears should be shared and expressed because the dying loved one is probably experiencing the same sadness you are feeling. But people clinging to a dying person and not being willing to let them go creates a burden on them. If family members can accept the circumstances it makes it easier on themselves and the one who is dying. Allow the transition to be an easy one for your loved one.

Acceptance also means saying your goodbyes. Say your goodbyes beforehand so that in the future you won’t say, “I wish I had talked with her about…” You can say your goodbyes over and over to your loved one, especially during the final days of life where sleep is more frequent and they may not be alert.

Conversation starters:
• I love you and I will miss you.
• You are a part of my heart and always will be.
• I am feeling such sadness at the thought of your death, and yet I know we will be ok because you have taught us well.
• I care a great deal about you and I hope that your dying will not happen for a long time. And I want to be able to be here for you as much as possible.

Story: One woman in hospice was rapidly deteriorating. She had a strong spiritual life and was literally glowing with radiance during her last few days of life. I walked past her room and saw her daughter sitting on one side of her bed holding her hand, and her mother sitting on the other side of the bed holding her hand. Both mother and daughter were crying and holding on tight to her. When I walked past the room, the patient looked at me with her radiant face and smiled with knowing eyes. I could tell she had accepted her death, and was allowing her family time to accept it too in their own time and way.

Humor is present in all situations. Whenever you can, allow humor to lighten the seriousness of this time for your family. It is literally good medicine for our bodies when we employ humor and it brings us relief.

Story: A woman in her 50s was in her final days of dying from cancer. She was extremely thin, and had bald headed. Even though physically she looked emaciated, she was radiant and glowing. Her eyes were clear and bright, and she was alert and talkative. We talked for a while and I talked a little about my near death experience. She said that she had a near death experience, too, and that hers was very similar to mine. “Because of that experience,” she said, “I’m not afraid of dying.”

I asked her what caused her near death experience. She said that her abusive husband was trying to strangle her to death and almost succeeded! We laughed at how ironic it was that in his own way her husband had given her a great gift that was serving her so very well during her final days of life.

Author's Bio: 

Donna Belk is a writer and educator in the field of death and dying. She works with individuals and families as a coach or guide for those facing end-of-life issues. Additionally Donna offers training programs and workshops to educate people about what to expect as one dies, how to prepare for a peaceful death, and how to care for your loved one after death. Donna is a hospice worker and a Registered Yoga Teacher. She combines the philosophy of her 30 years of yoga study with the issues of death and dying. Donna holds a BA from South Texas University, but considers her most important educational credential to be her own near death experience which occurred in 1985. Donna’s teaching style is warm, light-hearted and compassionate. Donna loves sharing her hospice patient stories because it feels as if she is passing on some small significance of their lives.