Would you want to know?
Is it better to know a loved one is going to die? Would you like to know you were dying? Would you rather your death, or that of a loved one be unexpected? Is it better for those left behind to know so they aren’t so shocked after losing someone suddenly and unexpectedly?
Both my parents died unexpectedly. I used to think it would have been better if I could have said goodbye. However, I’ve come to recognise it would have been different to have been given this opportunity, but not necessarily better. In my circumstances, no one got to say goodbye. They didn’t get to tell me how much they loved me, they didn’t offer wise words about life. On the other hand, my memories of them, or of my Mum at least, are not tainted by seeing a decline in her physical or mental health after fighting a long battle with a debilitating illness.
Anticipatory Grief is the term used to describe the emotions of grief we experience prior to a loss. When a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, we start to grieve straight away. This creates another layer of grief. Do we continue to have hope for a cure? A miracle? Do we accept the inevitable and try to shield ourselves from the pain we know is coming? Trying to anticipate how we’ll feel when they die.
When we know someone is dying, we start to grieve before they pass. We can even start to withdraw ourselves from them in an effort to prepare ourselves or lessen our pain when they eventually die. Of course, this doesn’t ease our pain. Many dying people express sadness because their friends and family withdraw from them.
It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is dying, but don’t let that hold you back from sitting with them. I’ve found those who are dying often accept their impending transition easier or earlier than their loved ones do, and can be more willing to talk about it. This is very individual though. A good place to start is to just be there to listen and ask them what they’d like. Some days they might want to talk about their fears or their view of life and death, other days they might want to talk about less philosophical or more mundane things like the weather or what’s happening on their favourite TV show. They might want to help prepare you for their transition or talk about their wishes for you after they’ve died. They might enjoy you reading to them. You know them best, just being there for them is enough.
Even if you are expecting a loved one to die and you know their time is nearly up, you still experience grief when they go. Knowing and preparing yourself for their death does not negate the pain of your loss or the need to grieve after they die.
Knowing brings Opportunities
Prior knowledge of someone’s imminent death gives everyone the opportunity to say the things they might never have said otherwise. It provides the opportunity for discussions on topics you may not have ever talked about before and conversations you would never have considered otherwise. Conversations about life and death, about their fears and regrets, and their thoughts and beliefs on dying and what happens afterwards.
Ideally, those who are dying find their own peace prior to their death and can offer comfort to their loved ones, reassuring them of their readiness to die. They find the courage to say those things they never got around to saying previously. To say sorry and make amends, if that is what they choose. To say ‘I love you’. They can review their life and talk about any regrets they might have, and accept the decisions they made. Some people might want to reach out to estranged family or friends.
Those who know they are dying can let their loved ones know what they’d like to happen after their death, whether this is about funeral arrangements or advice for how they wish their loved ones to live and remember them. Discussions about their wishes for end of life decisions and planning their own funeral can make it much easier for family members who otherwise would need to make such arrangements when they are in a state of shock or disbelief if the death was unexpected. It also promotes the opportunity to ensure the person’s will and other appropriate legal or financial affairs are organised before they die.
Friends have shared with me how they developed a special closeness and unique relationship with loved ones who were dying. They are grateful for having spent time with their loved ones and for having had many heart to heart conversations before they died. This special time allowed them to create new memories and they got to know each other on a deeper level because they were honest with each other. The special bond forged during the last days or weeks prior to death, allowed their loved ones to carry special memories forward into their life. This seemed to make their grieving afterwards a little easier as well.
Loved ones also get the same opportunities to say and do what they need to, to say their goodbyes and express their love and appreciation. Everyone gets the opportunity to say things they had never verbalised previously, possibly being too proud to admit before. This can be the first time some adult children have heard their father tell them he loves them or is proud of them. Every child wants to hear this from their parent. Not every child does.
The special bond that can be developed during this time can help ease the pain of suffering after the death. This creates another layer of memories to cherish. For memories is all we have after they are gone.
I’d be happy to hear your thoughts or what your experience has been.