Caring for a Terminally-Ill Family Member or Friend
Caring for someone who is dying may not be easy, but it can be the most rewarding thing you ever do. Even when you know the end of life is approaching, you might not feel prepared. Understanding what to expect, and what you can do to increase their comfort, can help.
As they approach the end of life, he or she may want to talk about spirituality or the meaning of life. As a hospice volunteer, I’ve seen it both ways: sometimes conversations are natural, and other times, the patient doesn’t want to talk so openly about their beliefs (often long forgotten).
You don’t want to force the subject — but if it comes up, encourage them to explore and address his or her feelings. You might ask open-ended questions about his or her beliefs and experiences, but what I do is simple: share my own perceptions (when asked). You may also want to invite a spiritual leader to visit.
What I really enjoy doing (when we have enough time together), is to help them communicate their final wishes for family and friends. Encourage them to share his or her feelings, including thanks or forgiveness, and give others a chance to say goodbye. This may stimulate discussion about important, unsaid thoughts, which can be meaningful for everyone. They might also find it comforting to leave a legacy — such as creating a Life Story page through this site, where they can record details about his or her life.
It's difficult to predict exactly when someone will die. However, in the weeks before death, they may show various signs and symptoms indicating that the end of life is near. Look for:
- Restlessness and agitation: They may insist on frequently changing positions.
- Withdrawal from conversation or activity: They may no longer want to participate in simple social engagement.
- Drowsiness: They may spend most of his or her time asleep.
- Loss of appetite: They may eat and drink less than usual, or not at all.
- Pauses in breathing: This may happen when asleep or awake.
- Difficulty healing: Wounds and infections may not heal.
- Swelling: This may happen in the hands, feet or other areas of the body.
When awake, they may also begin to settle unfinished business or talk about seeing or feeling the presence of loved ones who have died. They may even say that he or she feels death is near.
The active phase of dying usually begins several days before death. Signs may include changes in skin color, noisy or irregular breathing, inability to eat and drink, and limited ability to communicate. Although you can't change what's happening, you can help him or her feel as comfortable as possible.
They may experience a brief, final surge of energy. Though it can be confusing to see this renewed vitality, remember that this is a normal part of dying. Take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy him or her and say your final goodbyes.
When the Time is Right, Keep Vigil
For many families, keeping vigil is a way to show support and love. If you decide to keep vigil, continue talking to them. If you think they would want to share this time with others, invite family members or close friends to show their support as well. Express your love, but also let them know that it's all right to let go.