Being by someone's side at the end stages of life isn't easy. If you are facing the death of your mother or father, you are likely feeling a range of emotions. It's not easy to cope with the grief of losing a parent while trying to present with them. There's a delicate balance of self-care and a willingness to show up for your parents needed.
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Raising the specter of death brings out the most vulnerable parts of people. It takes courage and unconditional love to be by your parent's side when they are dying. While it isn't always a comfortable experience, it is something we will all face.
Not all experiences with supporting a dying parent are the same, but there may be some common emotions shared. If you are currently experiencing this, here are a few steps for coping and being resilient in the face of the unknown. While it may be difficult to be present, keeping yourself together and showing love for your parents may be the best thing for everyone present.
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Steps for Coping
Death can be the ultimate unknown for many of us, and difficult to understand. Many of us don't have experience with death until it shows up at our doorsteps. If your mother or father are dying, here are some things you can cultivate to bring your heart and mind some peace:
Trust the process
As painstaking as it feels, it's okay to trust death. It's a natural part of life. You may feel the kneejerk reaction to protect your mother or father in their dying state. That is a normal feeling, but it's also okay to let the process of death happen. Trust that even in the dark and sad times, you will get through it.
We often think we need to "do" something when someone is dying, but sometimes it is better to simply "be." Sit and let yourself be intimate with death. This practice will help reduce your fears and offer you a state of stillness amidst the chaos.
Feel your feelings
The grief process can start before a death has occurred. If you found out that your mother or father is dying of cancer, you might be feeling anticipatory grief, a type of grief that shows up before an impending loss. It's important to make time for your grief and to let yourself feel the feelings. When people find out a loved one is sick or dying, it is common to be unable to process emotions.
Consider taking time out to let yourself feel what is going on inside. By feeling these emotions, you can be strong by taking the space to be vulnerable and reflect on your sadness. Schedule a few minutes in the morning or evening to process your feelings. You can also read a book on grief to help you cope and remind you aren’t alone.
Take a break
Caring for a dying parent can be an around-the-clock job. Sensitive situations like these require a lot from your mind and body, and it can be difficult to listen to your own needs.
Be aware, and try to listen to your body and take a break. This doesn't have to be a long break. Let yourself recharge so that you can bring your best when spending the final days with mom or dad. Remember it's not the quantity that counts, but the quality.
Go easy on yourself
Caring for a dying parent can raise stress levels and fill your head with lots of doubts. You may be asking if you are doing enough and if you have shown your parent how much you loved them.
Trust that you are doing your best and you are enough now. Offer yourself some compassion and try not to overthink things. You are doing the best you can give the situation.
Forgive and minimize regrets
Like many people, you may not have had the easiest relationship with your parents. As you continue to spend time at your parent’s side, consider this an opportunity to reflect on any misgivings or hardships you shared with them. If you can and if it feels healthy, take the time to express how much you love and appreciate them. Sometimes in these scenarios, it may feel healthy to discuss letting go of some of those misgivings.
If it helps them feel more at peace and gives you more space to love them, consider talking openly to relieve everyone of any regrets. It frees your mother or father from the burden of leaving things unresolved at the end of their lives, as well.
Caring for a dying parent can be all-consuming and you may not have much time for anything else. During this time, it's crucial to let people help you.
Ask a close friend to help organize a meal train or help with the day-to-day tasks that you may not be able to do. It can feel vulnerable to ask for help in difficult times, but keep in mind that this is a unique time that requires extra hands and help.
Steps for Supporting Your Dying Mother or Father
Supporting a parent at the end of life may feel like a tall order. Dying is always an unknown, and it's okay to feel scared during this process. Here are some steps on how to best support a parent who is dying:
Being an active listener for your mother or father at their end stages is a valuable gift you can give. Invite them to share stories if they are feeling up to it. Listen to the space between the words and the things that they may be expressed on a nonverbal level.
If your parent is unresponsive at the end stages of life, make space for the silence. Sitting in silence with a loved one can be a very moving experience.
You might feel inclined to try and fix or find a solution to your situation. The reality is that death is not something to correct or fix. The best thing you can offer your parents at this time is the gift of your constant presence.
Turn off your cell phone, talk less, and let yourself be in the moment with your mother and father. There's nothing to change, all you have to do is be together. Embrace the real and rawness of the moment.
Express your love
Let your unconditional love shine. It can be tough to sit with death without falling apart in tears. Being able to hold unconditional loving space when your parent is dying is powerful. Hug them and let them know you will miss them.
Tell them how much you love them and how grateful you are to have been their child.
Honor their wishes
Your parent’s end-of-life wishes may be different than yours. Whether they choose to die in a hospital or home on hospice, let them know you support their choices. Ask them what their wishes are for comfort and if there is anything they want to do before they die.
You will also want to ask them if they have any special funeral or celebration of life requests. Take notes of what they request and let them know you will honor their wishes.
Be their advocate
You are the best advocate for your dying parent. If your parent is in the late stages of cancer or terminal illness, they may not be able to express their wants and needs. As their son or daughter, you can step into the role of advocate.
If unresponsive, refer to their advanced directive and communicate this to the doctors. We all deserve to have a death according to our wishes and this is the time to make sure you honor your parents.
Give them permission to die
Dying people often cling on to life for the ones still living. It can be difficult for them to give their final goodbye. Most people are fighting to live and heartbroken to see their loved ones so sad. This is a common reason many dying people will hold on to the very last breath, even after their body has begun to shut down.
If your mom or dad is actively dying, let them know it's okay to let go. Tell them you will miss them but you want them to have the freedom to die. This can be validating for you and your dying loved one.
Let Yourself Grieve
The death of a parent is a significant loss and it will take a considerable amount of time to work through the grief. The pain doesn't go away overnight, and it may remain for years. You have gone through something that feels unrecoverable, but you will survive it.
Instead of rushing right back into the daily grind, let yourself be with your grief. It's okay to not be okay. Grief groups and professional therapy can be helpful tools for processing grief. You may also select a close friend or two to be a steady support system when you need them.
Keep in mind that processing grief takes time and everyone grieves in different ways. You can't rush your healing. As the writer Martín Prechtel says:
“Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”
- Prechtel, Martin, The Smell of Rain on Dust, Flowering Mountain, www.floweringmountain.com/books/rain-on-dust.html