Since hearing is thought to be the last sense to stop, all conversations in the presence of a dying loved one should be conducted with the assumption that she can hear you until the moment of death. This is a time to glorify the accomplishments and impact of your loved one. Let her know how important she has been in your life and the lives of others, and how her presence will continue in their accomplishments. This is a time to celebrate her life, not to mourn her death.
If your loved one has a history of welcoming touch, then touch her. One woman lay next to her husband and gently cradled him until he died. If your loved one was uncomfortable with physical contact, then simply holding her hand is appropriate. If you perceive in her a noticeable discomfort at being touched at this time, it’s not a reflection on you. It is difficult to know what is happening physically and psychologically as a person dies. And my suggestion here, as with everything else I’ve discussed in this book, is to allow her to let you know what she prefers.
During my last visit to one patient, I told her how much our short friendship had meant to me and how much I would miss her. She responded, “I’ve had a good life.” She held on to my fingers tightly as she lost consciousness. When her daughter arrived thirty minutes later, she released my fingers.
The Vigil: Preparing for the Imminent Death of a Loved One
A vigil is the time when we prepare for the imminent death of a loved one. If you haven’t done it already, remove from the room as many items associated with a loved one’s illness as you can and replace them with items, smells, and sounds associated with his life. If you feel uncomfortable at this time and you have hospice service, ask for a vigil volunteer.
Many people feel discomfort when alone with someone at the moment of death, or when managing the friends and relatives who have gathered. Let the vigil volunteer handle everything. This person will come into your home, help create a calming environment, suggest things that can be done to ease the death of your loved one, and, if necessary, provide guidance to those who aren’t sure what to do or who are causing your loved one discomfort.
Giving Permission to Die & Completing Unfinished Business
How do you tell your loved one it’s all right to die? Knowing what words you will use won’t give you the slightest hint of what you’ll feel when the words are said. The grief of some of my patients’ family members was so consuming that it overshadowed the needs of their dying loved ones. They knew that death was imminent, but having these loved ones alive for even a few more hours or minutes was important to them.
I never viewed their inability to let go as selfish. Rather, it was a conflict of interests. I’ve always felt that much of the reluctance to give a loved one permission to die has to do with the unfinished business of the caregiver.
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What was so important that caregivers delayed their loved ones’ departures, sometimes despite evidence of intense pain? The answer differed for each person, but usually it was something that had been left undone or unsaid. None of these things were so complicated that they couldn’t have been addressed much earlier in the dying process. Just as loved ones need to complete their unfinished business to ease their deaths, so do caregivers, before the last moment, if they are to help their loved ones die.
The Moment of Death: A Profoundly Moving and Peaceful Experience
Many poets and authors have tried to describe the sensations they feel at the moment of another person’s death. Although I’ve been present at the deaths of others many times, I still can’t find the words to describe that moment.
When I do presentations, I ask if anyone has been present at the moment of someone’s death; those who have, I ask what they experienced. Nobody felt they could put into words their emotions. Many spoke about a sense of spirituality that pervaded the room, their heightened sense of awareness, the flood of memories that surfaced, and an indescribable love for the person who just left.
Nobody ever spoke about anything frightening; they described the actual moment of death as profoundly moving and always peaceful.
*sub-titles added by InnerSelf
Copyright © 2012 by Stan Goldberg.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800/972-6657 ext. 52.
This article is adapted from the book:
Leaning Into Sharp Points: practical guidance and nurturing support for caregivers -- by Stan Goldberg.
Whether you’re coping with a loved one who has received a terminal diagnosis, has a long-term illness or disability, or suffers with dementia, caregiving is challenging and crucial. Those who face this responsibility, whether occasionally or 24/7, are brushing up against life’s sharpest point. In this book, Stan Goldberg offers an honest, caring, and comprehensive guide to those on this journey.
About the Author
Stan Goldberg, PhD, has been a hospice volunteer and caregiver for many years. He has served more than four hundred patients and their loved ones at four different hospices, and was both a trainer and consultant. His previous book, Lessons for the Living, won the London Book Festival’s Grand Prize in 2009. He is a private therapist, clinical researcher, and former San Francisco State University professor. His website is stangoldbergwriter.com.