Watching a loved one die is a challenging experience to go through. While you may have memories of your loved one being strong and healthy, you may feel like these memories are marred by a terminal illness or sudden accident. It can cause all sorts of feelings to rise to the surface, especially if you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with death.
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Sitting with your loved one as they go through their final transition may make you angry that they’re dying. These feelings can intensify as you sit and watch them suffer through their last days.
You may not have yet learned to balance the need to be there with them as they transition to the end-of-life with not wanting to be there to witness their physical and cognitive deterioration.
How to Handle Watching a Loved One Die
Choosing hospice or other palliative care alternatives means acknowledging that there’ll be no miracle cure for your loved one and having to accept that the end is near. For many, this is a painful realization that their loved one is sick and dying.
No one wants to see someone they love go through an extended process of dying and suffering. Regardless of any reconciliation of thoughts and emotions you may have regarding watching a loved one die, you may find yourself needing extra support. Here are some ways to help you cope.
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1. Consider time a gift
When you don’t know how to say goodbye to someone who’s dying, sit with them in silence until one of you comes up with something you want to say. These final days are painful for the person who’s dying as much as they are for you. Take this as a final opportunity to sit with your loved one through their last days on earth.
Tell them about what they mean to you and how they’ve impacted your life. Tell them how much you’ll miss them and how you hope to find a way to make it through without them. Many people would do anything to have one last final conversation with a loved one who died unexpectedly. Consider this final farewell as a bittersweet gift.
2. Learn from death
Death teaches you about life and living as much as it teaches you about pain and sorrow. You will learn about death and the toll it takes on the living. More importantly, you’ll learn and feel the emotional impact it leaves on those who are struggling to be strong for their loved ones.
While you may not be prepared for or bear to see your loved one dying, sitting with them during their final days may give you a lot of insight regarding the physical and emotional journey of death. Ask questions and listen for some of the most profound life’s lessons you’ll get from your loved one.
3. Give yourself time to process
The stages of grief apply to both the living and those who are near death. You both will suffer distress as you prepare for your loved one to die. You may need to take some time to process your loved one’s death after they’ve died to gain perspective and understanding behind everything you’ve just gone through.
Even the strongest person will suffer emotional pain at the loss of their loved one’s life. It’s okay not to be okay for the next few days or weeks following their death. Take as much time as you need to accept what’s happened.
4. Find peace
Say all the things you’ve always wanted to say to them before they die. You don’t need to worry so much about knowing exactly what to say to someone who’s in hospice care.
Start each visit with a conversation about whatever’s going on in your day. They’ll welcome the distraction from their illness and the routine medical care or maintenance they have to endure. This is also an opportunity to mend your relationship and to find peace and closure.
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5. Recognize when the end is near
You may not have words to comfort your loved one as the end approaches. And they may not have the words to comfort you. You might sit in silence and wait for death to come together.
This experience can give you the opportunity to learn how to comfort someone who’s upset, knowing that they’re dying. A dying person’s final moments of lucidity are often their final goodbyes.
How to Take Care of Yourself After Watching a Loved One Die
You may be wondering what to do now that your loved ones died. You ask yourself how you can move forward or recover from seeing your loved one die. The path toward healing is a long-suffering one that began way before your loved one died.
Your grief journey began the moment you learned that your loved one was sick and dying. Perhaps it started even before then, knowing that advanced age or their health condition would soon catch up to them. The feelings of pain and sorrow that you feel before your loved one dies are called anticipatory grief. You trigger this type of grief before you even experience loss in anticipation of losing your loved one.
Here are some ways to help you get through your grief as you take care of yourself after experiencing your loved one dying.
6. Have a plan
Immediately after your loved one dies, there’ll be an avalanche of things needing your immediate attention. You may have an overwhelming list of things to do, taking you away from your grief and getting yourself back together. You might already be feeling detached from reality following your loved one’s death.
This added list of duties and tasks will take you that much further away from taking care of yourself. Ensure that you have a solid plan in place as to what needs doing and the order they must be taken care of. Include an action plan to help get you rested and refreshed before tackling your list.
7. Forgive yourself
Give yourself a break from all of your responsibilities, and take a moment to compose yourself and organize your thoughts. During the immediate moments following your loved one’s death, you may be feeling a sense of guilt and shame for not having done enough to prolong your loved one’s life or to make them more comfortable.
Forgive yourself for all of the oversights--both the minor and major ones. Most people who provide care to a loved one who’s dying will experience these types of feelings. It’s a natural part of the grieving process to take stock of everything you could have done better.
8. Face your feelings
Suppressing your feelings and emotions after your loved one’s death is not a healthy way to grieve. By suppressing your feelings, you may be more likely to experience other serious and complicated types of grief.
Things like exaggerated grief can happen when you don’t accept how you’re feeling or when you try holding back your tears. Go over all the things you’re sensing and pinpoint why you’re feeling the way you are.
9. Look after yourself
After the death of your loved one, don’t be surprised to feel relieved that they’ve died. These feelings are normal mostly when you were the person giving them their final end-of-life care or sitting with them for the last few days of their life.
Sometimes these feelings of guilt may make you feel less deserving of special care and attention to your health and hygiene. To combat these feelings of guilt and shame, make a list of all of your essential self-care needs, and take care of them at the start of each day.
10. Ask for help
Watching a loved one die is emotionally and physically taxing on you, primarily when you provided some or all of the end-of-life caregiving services. You may feel selfish, asking others to help you after the death of your loved one. It’s normal to have these feelings of not wanting to be a burden to anyone, but sometimes you must ask for help when needed. You don’t need to pretend that everything is okay and that you’re capable of handling things as if nothing’s happened.
Your loved one has died, and it’s okay if you can’t take care of everything for others or even for yourself. Start by asking your closest friends and family to pitch in. Have a detailed list of specific tasks you need help with. Knowing where to offer service and giving support makes everything less awkward for those trying to help you through your grief.
11. Take time off
After your loved one’s death, you may want to take some time off from caregiver duties and from anything that involves having to give of yourself physically and emotionally. During this time, it’s okay to say no. Don’t be afraid to decline invitations without the need to make excuses.
Remember to go easy on yourself and be direct and upfront with others. You don’t need to add stress to your life by thinking of why you can’t or won’t do things that you’re not ready for. Let your friends and family know that you need some time for yourself to regroup and recharge. Promise to reach out when you’re back and emotionally ready to face everyone.
Seeing Someone You Love Dying
Seeing someone you love go through the final stages of life is absolutely devastating to anyone who’s had to experience the prolonged death of a loved one. Your loved one may have been dying long before you received the news of their illness or death.
The trauma of seeing your loved one take their last breath will stay with you for the rest of your life. Getting proper care, counseling, and therapy will help you move forward with experiencing this type of loss.