My mother and I shared a home during the final nine years of her life. As her caregiver and now as a hospital chaplain, I have spent a lot of time with the dying and their loved ones. Here are the top five things I wish more people knew.

1.  Don’t assume you are supposed to know what to do.

We live in a culture that has a powerful death taboo that perpetuates fear and avoidance as our primary responses to death. As a result, too many of the 2.8 million Americans dying each year, and those who love and care for them, suffer through the experience emotionally isolated, frightened, ignorant of their options, and unprepared spiritually and practically. It is quite normal to be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing around the dying.  

2.  Make it a priority to demonstrate your love for the person who is dying.  The fact that your loved one is dying can be overwhelming and scary. Do your best to lead with your heart. Nothing is more important than loving each other.  

Love them up, down, and sideways but don’t make a big deal about it – just let your love flow and watch for little things that you can do to be of service to them. If you enter your loved one’s room and say something like “Your color looks good today” when you both know he or she is dying, your real communication says “I can’t handle this and need to pretend it isn’t happening.” Be honest. Be authentic. Be you. It’s OK to let them see your fear and distress, but don’t let that overshadow your love. Express your gratitude to them for the ways they enriched your life, share happy memories, and, yes, do say goodbye – but do it tenderly. Don’t be afraid to touch the dying. Nothing communicates our love more than holding hands and stroking our loved one’s hair.

Tailor your efforts according to the time available. Respect the fact that time can be very short from hearing the prognosis to the actual time of death. One of my personal pet peeves is when people are inconvenienced by the news as though their loved one should have checked on their availability rather than having the audacity to sound the red alert at an inopportune moment. When your mother has a 50/50 chance of making it through the night, you don’t show up four days later!   

3.  Respect the authority of the dying to make his or her own decisions.  

The person who is dying is the boss. If they are conscious enough to be making their own decisions – don’t bully them into doing things your way. Just as sure as you are that your way is right for you, know that their way is right for them no matter how different it is from your own. If someone holding a healthcare proxy is in charge, his or her authority is to be equally respected. Ideally, each of us gets our ducks in a row before our dying time. In reality, most do not. As a result, a lot of financial, legal, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual life or death decisions get made in a hurry at the last minute. This can cause a lot of chaos, confusion, conflict, and mixed up emotions among family and loved ones. Do your best to quickly align yourself with the wishes of the dying. It is their death, not yours.

4.  Accept that he or she is dying. Don’t fight against it.

It’s fine to hope that things will turn around and death will be postponed. However, if death is what is happening, it helps enormously to accept that fact. We are taught to fight against death like it is an evil monster. In fact, death is as normal as birth – we just haven’t been trained to see it that way. I find it sad when doctors and loved ones subject the dying to endless invasive drugs, tests, and procedures when it is obvious that it is time to die. I am also an enthusiastic supporter of Hospice care for the dying.

Each of us is born one moment of one day, we die one moment of another day, and have an unknown number of days to live in between. Make the most of the time you and your loved one have left together. Fill it will tenderness and be of loving service to their wishes and needs. Give them a good sendoff.

5.  Contribute to maintaining a peaceful environment.

When someone is dying, they have enough to do handling their own process, which might include such things as physical pain, fear, emotional turmoil, confusion, and regrets. Assume that any discord in their environment will add to their load and be unkind on the part of those causing it. Even if the dying person is seemingly unconscious, assume he or she can hear and be affected by everything that happens around them. If family members are squabbling, take it outside of the room. Consider the dying room a sacred space where only love and comforting activities are allowed unless the dying person requests otherwise. 

If you would like to know more about me and my work, please explore my website here.