I remember one of my last moments with a favorite hospice patient. Close to dying, his frail form was almost skeletal, his muscles had formed tense knots, and each breath was a labored, painful wheeze. His clouded blue-grey eyes struggled to focus on each visitor. I bathed him gently, cringing since every movement pained him. Afterward, I dressed him in plaid flannel and smiled as he leaned back on the couch, his slender hands falling across his lap.
Usually a talkative man, in these days he barely spoke. With a heavy sigh, I turned to leave, but he called me back. “Wait,” he croaked. As I drew close to him, he reached for my hand. Grasping my hand tightly, he looked up at me said, “Thank you. I feel so much better now. But I felt so much better just seeing your face.” As I blinked back tears, he pulled me closer to him and gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I was moved to silence. He didn’t want to let go, so I held his hand for a long time. A few days later, I wrote a poem to him about what he meant to me and read it to him. A few weeks after that, he died.
I worked in hospice for six years as a nursing assistant. During that time, I learned intimately what my patients needed in their last months or days. Families and friends often didn’t know how to be supportive. Drawing from my experience, here are 9 ways to support your loved one while they are dying.
1. Be there. Many people are afraid to die alone. They want you there, and your presence is incredibly comforting. If you can’t always be there, arrange for other people to be there.
2. Bring the family out to say goodbye. Many patients talked about wanting to see all their family members one last time so they could say goodbye. If relatives can’t be there, have them call. A letter or a card with a long handwritten note is ok, but the more personal and intimate the connection, the better. This goes for their friends too.
3. Give your loved one permission to break the rules. Usually, someone who is dying has been declining in health for a long time. As a result, they have been following strict rules about their diet and lifestyle. When they are dying and a lifestyle change won’t save them, let them break their rules. Let them eat ice cream and drink wine. Let them stay up all night if they want, and wear pajamas or mismatched clothes. Let them enjoy little pleasures in their last days and be comfortable.
4. Try to grant “one last wish.” As the end of life approaches, people often wish they could check something off their bucket list. Big wishes can often be filled by corporations, so don’t be afraid to ask somewhere. Has your loved one always wanted to ride in a helicopter? Call some place with a helicopter. You might be surprised by the corporations who want to help a dying person fulfill the last wish. People want to help dying people, and it’s good publicity for the company. Some people nearing the end of their lives want to do something they love one more time, like eat at their favorite restaurant, go to a concert, or see the ocean. Other people might just want to be pampered: a trip to a hair salon or a massage. With some work, these things might be possible.
5. Listen to and record life stories. As someone approaches the end of life, they usually want to reflect back on their life. They also may worry about leaving a legacy. Ask your loved one to tell you stories about their life, and write them down. As you listen to memories, express to your loved one that they are fascinating and have lived a meaningful life.
6. Educate yourself about the physical signs of the end stage of life. A person’s body changes a lot before they die. You can read online about “end stages of life” or talk to a medical professional. As your loved one approaches death, it helps if you know what to expect and how to comfort your loved one physically. These are not things that indicate a medical crisis but are signs of the body shutting down as the person is dying.
7. Try to think of dying as the final stage of life. We aren’t made to live to 150 years. It’s always hard to lose someone, especially if they are young, but none of us live forever. Try to accept that your loved one is in the final stage of their life, and you can help them find comfort in this last stage. They are dying but their life isn’t over yet.
8. Appreciate your last moments with them. It’s difficult and frightening to be losing someone you love, but right now you still have the gift of days, weeks, or months with them. Try to appreciate that you still have some time left and make the most of this time. In these last days, you may have some long deep conversations with Grandma that you never had the opportunity to have before. Your friend might share a secret or express his honest feelings for you. Your family might change and grow closer.
9. Give your loved one permission to die. Most of my hospice patients were ready to die, especially the elderly people. They were in pain, they were exhausted, and they felt like they had lived their lives and didn’t have anything more they needed to do. Tired of doctors, tests, and medical treatments, they were ready to pass away and not suffer anymore. However, many of them worried that their family would struggle after they died. Tell your loved one that they can die and that you and their family will be ok. Your loved one will likely be relieved to hear it. In hospice, we believe that in the end stages of life, people often choose when they are ready to leave us.
I know it’s incredibly hard to lose someone you love. I can relate, both personally and professionally. At the same time, it’s satisfying to be able to support someone in their last days. When your loved one passes away, you can know you did right by them until their last moments. Hopefully your last memories of your loved one are not simply of your grief and their pain, but of the last wish you fulfilled for them, the memories you recorded, and the way your family came together to support each other.