All too often in Western culture death is looked on as a horrific event only to be discussed if absolutely necessary.
But death is a part of life and we do have the choice to talk about the loss of a loved one with openness, honesty, kindness, and compassion.
While anger and sadness are inevitable emotions when we learn that someone we love is about to die, we can choose to work through our emotions and take a different approach.
Celebrate their life
Often it’s only at the funeral that we start to discuss all the wonderful things our loved one did and what they meant to us, and we do this through a lens of sadness and feeling sorry for ourselves.
What if, instead, you start to celebrate your loved one before they passed on, taking time to remember their life, and the joy they have bought to you? What if you work to make the mood a positive instead of a negative? How can you involve others, including, of course, your loved one who doesn’t have much time left, in a mood of celebration? Could you perhaps, if your loved one has the energy and desires it, throw a celebratory evening of sharing stories?
Communicate as much as you can
Often we feel that we shouldn’t say the wrong thing as everyone is tense and upset. But communication can be healing.
And there is limited time to say what needs to be said. We all know the importance of letting your loved one know you love them, what you have cherished, and what importance they have had in your life.
But the limited time is not necessarily just between you and your loved one who will soon pass on. There is in some ways limited time between you and those in your life who might shut down and need space after the funeral. Sometimes they don’t open up again for a long time if ever. Before this happens, look to make speaking together about what is happening a meaningful and transformative experience.
If you feel a need to speak big uncomfortable truths to your loved one who doesn’t have much time left or to other family members, look into communicating in a constructive, useful, and open way so that it is healing instead of creating more conflict. If this is something you are not at ease with consider hiring a coach or counsellor who can help you.
Of course another thing that has to be communicated about is the practicals of the impending funerals and burials, including the financing of it. This can cause some conflict amongst family members, so prepare yourself in advance with ways manage conflict in a positive and constructive way.
Take your cue from your loved one
Your loved one may have very definite ideas about how they want to spend their final days as well as about their funeral, burial, and other matters. They may in fact go against the grain of their or your traditional and spiritual beliefs. Facing death can make people see new perspectives, and its important you make time to understand how they feel instead of trying to cajole them into what you feel is right. Open the dialogue and discuss everything and try to understand what they want; it is their life, and their death, too.
There is, of course, the possibility this person may not wish to discuss their impending death. Such a situation can become awkward. It’s best to be honest and open. The death of a loved one affects many people, and the person must be practical, even when it’s difficult to do so. Gently create openings for the possibilities in conversation, as even if your loved one is choosing to avoid discussing it it is likely to cause them some stress unless dealt with.
Don’t make yourself a martyr
Many people who are dying have specific issues and needs they want taken care of and things they can’t do themselves they will want help with.
Some things might be positive, like a sudden desire to give money to a charity or visit a certain place, or to spend their last days at home even though they will require constant care. Some might be harder to see as positive, like the desire to get back in touch with an abusive ex.
While you might want to help, be careful to remember that you are allowed boundaries. If anything feels too much for you, or you know if you do it you’ll always resent it, listen to that instinct. Be honest with your loved one that you don’t feel comfortable dealing with their request. Instead of judging them, it can be helpful to tell them your viewpoint in a non-pushy way then try to find someone else to help them if they still want to go through with their decision.
And be honest with yourself and how much care you can actually provide. If you have a job and two kids and feel you must take care of your sick parent by yourself, ask yourself, is this really the best solution? What other support could I use? Nurses, other family members visiting on a rota? Remember, it’s not showing love driving yourself into the ground, it’s showing love to do your best but be honest about the rest.
Keep the mood honest with everyone
Many of us in Western cultures are taught to “put on a brave face” when facing the loss of a loved one. It rarely helps as much as we are led to believe. Not only is repressing emotions bound to cause stress and anxiety and possible difficulties in the long run when all that has been held in tries to find its way out, but it’s often not as helpful to our loved one as we think.
Others tend to know how we feel anyway, and playing a game that we are okay when we aren’t can be exhausting. Your honesty might come as a great relief to your loved one and cause them less anxiety. It also gives them the gift of being able to comfort you and show you their love again.
As for extended family, try to be honest with them too. If you feel everyone is relying you too much, say so. And if you need to be left alone for a bit, then send out a message and let people know that you’re taking a time out.
Also be honest if what you really need is not time out but support. Email or call friends and be honest that you need some attention and care. People will understand.
Find support for you, too
It’s very important to not be so concerned about taking care of your loved one before they pass that you forget to take care of yourself. As well as remembering to find a few hours each week to relax and do something for you, it’s a good idea to seek support. It’s easy to think that you don’t have time to seek help, or that it can wait until later, or that you don’t need it.
But seeking support before your loved one passes can not only give you more energy to help them, it can give you the support and help you need to constructively navigate those tricky conversations you’ve always wanted to have before it’s too late and help you maintain better relations with your extended family who are also feeling the stress.
And of course having support can make the transition to living without them easier and help you avoid a future ‘crash’ from pushing yourself too hard. You might find a support group that fits your needs, or prefer a more private approach via one-on-one sessions with a bereavement counsellor or grief counsellor. And don’t forget that if you are feeling at wits end over the loss of a loved one there are wonderful helplines open 24 hours you can access, such as the Good Samaritans here in the UK.
Do you have any tips on ways to prepare for the loss of a loved one? Start the conversation below.
Pictures by Tom Coady, Dee Ashley