Supporting as Death Draws Near

At some point in life, many of us are called upon to support a dying family member, friend, or client. It is essential to recognize that during such times, the more knowledge we have about how to be helpful, the more successful our efforts will be. In this article, I will outline important points to consider as you prepare for this responsibility. Understanding these will ensure that the support you give is of great value to the dying person, and personally rewarding for you.

1) Examine attitude and feelings

Prior to being with someone who is dying, it is essential to examine our thoughts and attitudes about dying and death in general, and to then review how we feel about this specific upcoming death. Pondering what it would be like to say goodbye to everyone and everything that is of value and meaning to us can help us get in touch with some of our deepest feelings. This is especially important to consider if the person who is dying is about our age, the age of our partner, or the age of our children, or if their life circumstances are very similar to our own. It is crucial to recognize and acknowledge the realness of our feelings, rather than attempting to deny or ignore them. Death affects us and we get in trouble if we think it does not. When feelings are ignored, they tend to sneak out when we least expect them to; causing the situation to then become more about us, than about meeting the emotional and soulful needs of the other.

2) Acknowledge what dying people want

Dying creates numerous changes in all aspects of life. The more control we have over any situation, especially during times of change and uncertainty, the better we cope and adjust. It is important to allow the dying person as much control as possible. One way to do this is by frequently asking what the person wants, and from whom it is wanted. Fulfilling these requests may then require you to advocate on the dying person’s behalf; even to the point of meeting with the Chairman of the Board for something as simple as getting permission for the person’s Border Collie to be at the death bed.

3) Recognize the difference between pain and suffering

When pain is unmanageable, despite narcotic usage, the source of the suffering may be deeply rooted in unresolved emotional or spiritual concerns. As dying people review their lives, there is a need to bring peaceful closure to all significant relationships. Unresolved emotional and soulful issues, such as a need to explain one’s point of view related to a past incident, or the need to forgive or to seek forgiveness are often the sources of the suffering. Alleviating this suffering can happen by inquiring about a need to call a specific person to the bedside.

4) Support the Life Review

Erik Erikson described the Life Review as a process of examining one’s life to determine if the Gods are pleased. Dying persons become deeply engaged in this soulful process to determine where they did the best they could have, and where they felt the need to make amends. The Life Review can be stimulated by visits, music, photographs or through the process of reminiscing. Dying people value “Remember When” narratives of our positive experiences with them.

Every life is made of positive and difficult events. When the life is being reviewed, the seemingly insurmountable difficulties can saturate consciousness and the person can become fixated on them. When the dying person seems anxious or despairing, it is therapeutic to invite the relating of the most challenging times. As the person does so, help them explore any positive outcomes that may have resulted from each of the difficult events. A circular form of questioning works well to achieve this. “And then what happened?” can be asked following the first report of the difficult event, and asked again following each description of the outcomes that followed. In doing so, you help the person to more readily see any silver linings behind the cloud that moments earlier, appeared to be extremely dark and impenetrable.

Our goal in assisting with the Life Review is to help the dying person see their life as a meaningful whole, yes even with difficulties; but also with many positive circumstances. By aiding the movement of despairing moments into more positive ones, we help the person to die in integrity and with dignity.

 

©Jane A. Simington PhD

Grandfathering Strengthens Intergenerational Bonds

©Jane A. Simington PhD.

 

Parents who have had a child die often feel that they have lost a huge part of their future. All the goals, dreams and aspirations they had for that child and for their relationship with that child are gone, and in their place is a deep sadness and a longing for what will never be.

As a bereaved mother I know that while my son Billy can never be replaced and that the dreams we had for him will never be achieved, I have come to recognize that within that knowing is tied a deeper recognition of the cycle of life and of the value of meaningful relationships.

Each day, I marvel at my husband’s parenting and grandparenting. Now that Bill is mostly retired from the world of paid work, he rarely misses a morning phone call to our youngest daughter asking if she needs any help that day with the “boys”. His strong bond with our three grandsons, created from being so frequently present to them and involved in their activities, has helped him fulfill in so many ways some of the unfulfilled dreams he had for Billy and for his relationship with him. The positive effects of Bill’s grandparenting has increased my understanding of how when a family tragedy happens, each member of that family must assist in healing the family wounds and also of how when that healing takes place, the strengthening of relationships becomes like a glue to cement intergenerational bonds.

The family surname creates a substantial link from one generation to the next. Since Billy was the only male heir, upon his death that link was lost. Recognizing the grief her father experienced around that loss, our youngest daughter hyphenated the surnames of each of her three sons. Now, on occasion, to fit the backs of their hockey sweaters, their hyphenated names are shortened to reveal only Bill’s surname. While this may seem insignificant to others, to Bill and me it not only provides momentary joy-filled reminders of how proudly Billy would often turn his back to reveal for his dad his surname and number; it is also for us a knowing that by hyphenating her sons’ names, our daughter contributed to healing our family wound and helped to increase our grandsons’ understanding of their belonging to an extended family, where each family member contributes in both great and small ways to the establishment of bonds of healing, love and family support, that will extend these same strengths into their generation.

Both Bill and I are conscious of how involvement with our grandsons has helped to fill the empty spaces created by our inability to see Billy live to his adulthood; yet we are also keenly aware of how enriched our grandsons’ lives are because of Bill’s frequent involvement with them. It is difficult to say who gains the most from experiences such as when, under his Grandfather’s watchful guidance, our oldest grandson drove for the first time, his Grandfather’s red Camaro convertible; or when his Grandfather did not win any of the car races at Speeders, between him and his middle grandson; or when the youngest grandson urgently ran back home from school, to get the Coonskin hat his Grandfather has previously bought him, so that he could be appropriately dressed for his school field trip to Fort Edmonton.

While it impossible to say who acquires the most from such experiences, Bill and I both acknowledge that the giving and the receiving across these generations has increased our awareness of the fullness of the cycle of life and of how each of us contribute on a daily basis to the turning of that wheel.

Autumn Gifts: Lessons of Death and Rebirth

©Jane A. Simington, PhD.

The gardens have lost their freshness and here and there along the path red and gold leaves show themselves, like the silver hairs that now appear among my blond ones. The autumnal changes that awaken the cyclic rhythm within my own life cause me to once again reflect on how the shadow of summer’s death turns me inward, tearing away the veil revealing all that is now a part of the past.

autumn leaves

My son died in autumn. He had been in the springtime of his life. I will never see his abilities in their summer or autumn seasons. Watching the gathering of the field grains reminds me of the many years of etching my sorrow into the prairie paths. Walking those same paths today I am able to acknowledge the lessons of death and rebirth revealed in the seasonal changes of nature. I have learned to gratefully appreciate the splendor of the autumn fields, the meadow, and the lake, for their numerous tales of the continuing process of life. Over the years their encouraging whispers of perennial rebirth have reminded me that life goes on despite visible signs of death.

While the awareness of autumnal decline holds a strange mystery which adds to the gravity of my moods, I believe that autumn offers opportunities for life review and reverie that only a backward glance can provide. The season allows us to take advantage of the gifts wedged between summer’s hectic beauty and winter’s harsh decline, and in so doing can make us more able to truly focus on and appreciate the richness of our personal harvest.