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

The Vileness of War Tempers the Glory of Triumph

Jane A. Simington, PhD. 2017

Cenotaphs and anniversaries stir our individual and collective memories of life-changing events. November 11, like other anniversaries that mark military victories, are bittersweet for they temper the glory of triumph with the sadness of the sacrifices made and the vileness of war.

In preparation for our involvement in the November 11 ceremonies, my husband Bill and I processed some memories of our relationships with his Veteran Father. Bill’s initial thoughts were of how the war had interfered with his ability to develop a son-father connection; since for the first several years of his childhood, he knew his Father only as the “man” in the photo on the dresser. As Bill described how this lack of early bonding had impacted, even into his adulthood, his relationship with his Father, I wondered how many other men of my husband’s age had been affected similarly and, how many of today’s little boys are also denied the benefits of father-son bonding due to the separations caused by wars. I pondered too, how many other Veteran Fathers, even after their homecomings, remained distant and seemingly detached, due to their constant inward-pull, there to relive over and over, their war terrors.

Prolonged traumatic experiences, such as those resulting from combat trauma, are characterized by neurobiological and clinical features of detachment and subjective distancing from emotional experiences. The cost of emotional distancing can significantly interfere with the establishment, re-establishment, and maintenance of intimate relationships; as well as the avoidance of the necessary mental and emotional processing necessary for trauma healing to take place.

Clinicians are reporting that in ever increasing numbers, combat veterans are seeking non-conventional and complementary techniques for the treatment of their post-traumatic stress. Researchers have identified that combat veterans are doing so because they desire wholistic care that addresses their spiritual needs. James Hillman (1996) noted that people come into psychotherapy not only to relieve the pain of their traumatic symptoms, but to also find a personal story that honors their soul. Combat veterans and each of their family members need, not only their psychotherapists, but each of us to recognize and acknowledge the intensity of the inner anguish experienced as a result of war terrors and family abstinences. As we pause on November 11, to honor and thank our combat veterans and their families for their suffering, their sacrifices, and their sadnesses; may we deeply reflect on how, despite the glories of triumph, there is a vileness in war that allows for no winners.

Thanksgiving Festivals: A Time for Focused Appreciation

©Jane A. Simington PhD.

October, 2017

This evening, I lingered along the lakeshore path, marveling at the Autumn splendor of colored leaves dancing in the evening breeze, listening to the call of Canada Geese winging their way back to the safety of the water; and also, in awe of the brilliance of the soon-to-be-full moon. This Harvest Full Moon coincides with many harvest festivals in the Northern Hemisphere; and in Canada, it heralds the beginning of our Thanksgiving weekend.

I have great memories of many Thanksgiving feasts of the past; one of my favorites is in relation to focusing with appreciation on what I had wanted, rather than on what I did not want. Some years ago, when my eldest Grandson was about five years of age, I had asked him to help me finish setting the festive table by placing the knives and forks beside each plate. Some moments later, I returned to the dining room to see the results. The knife and fork had been placed beside his Granddad’s and my plates exactly as I had asked. The remainder pieces of silverware were scattered in various positions beside the other ten plates. I called him to me to emphasize how much I had appreciated how nicely he had placed the knives and forks beside his Granddad’s and my plates. I said nothing of the scattered silverware. Over the next half-hour, I caught glimpses of him making several trips back through the dining room; each time to rearrange to the best of his abilities, one or two more placements of knives and forks.

I am unsure if my Grandson recalls that event or even that day. It matters not; for I believe the lesson was mine and from it I learned the power of focusing on what I want, rather than on what I do not want. That Thanksgiving Day, nearly a decade ago, my Grandson taught me to appreciate even the smallest of blessings, and to recognize that when I do so, I am almost certain to get more of the good things in life.

As the Harvest Moon shines on you and your life, may you focus with appreciation on the good you have received, and may your gratefulness bring to you even more of what it is that you are most grateful for!

A Legacy of Love Enriches Our Family Story

©Jane A. Simington PhD. 2017

 

Summer is a time when many gather for special events that add memories to the family story, that will last a life time. Such gatherings also connect the present with the past; for they can evoke strong memories resulting from conversations about the legacy left by family members who have helped to establish intergenerational links.

A legacy is a tangible (such as an item) or intangible (such as love and respect) substance that is left by someone who has died and helps keep the deceased person alive in the memories of those whose lives have been significantly touched by the death. For me and my family members, our Mother’s flowers are both tangible and intangible portions of her legacy.

Roots from perennials which our Mother shared with each of her children, now flourish and bloom; not only in our gardens but in the gardens of our children and grandchildren. Throughout spring and summer we share photos of their blossoms. During family gatherings, we relive our various visits to Mother’s garden and the conversations we had as she insisted she be the one to dig the roots of each plant (explaining she knew best how to) so that the roots would grow into a plant that would thrive in our particular home gardens.

Today I picked a bouquet of roses, the roots of which originated from Mother’s plant. Mother loved roses and had one large rose bush that was abundant with fragrant blooms from early spring to late autumn. As I enjoyed my roses this morning, I spent some moments in reverie about my connections to my Mother and her roses. My Mother’s name was Rose, and in my pondering, I reflected on the symbolism associated with the rose and how that symbolism was a reflection of her name and of my Mother’s legacy to her family. Symbolically the rose represents love, as the guiding principle for life, a symbol carried from mythological and ancient times into all the major modern religions.

My association with my Mother and roses also caused me to recall that roses have long been associated with spiritual messengers and messages from those who have gone before us, and my own experiences regarding this knowledge. Two nights before my Mother died, I smelled roses, even though there were none (visible to me) in her room. When I related this, Mother responded that the roses were from my son who had died and that I would know Billy was around when I again smelled roses. Days later, on my drive homeward, for a few moments only, my entire car was flooded with the unmistakable, fragrance of blooming roses.

Returning from my reverie, I gazed again at the rose bouquet I had picked this morning, and appreciated anew a grander image of the wholeness of life and of the continuation of family connections, intergenerational bonds, and ancestral roots.

As your family gathers this summer, if someone of significance will no longer be present, I invite you to relive that person’s legacy. As you do, honor how this person contributed to your family ties and recognize how those connections have impacted your life and then determine how you will strengthen the intergenerational bond that will link your legacy to future generations.