Love in the Face of Death

Q: How can spouses, families, and friends show proper support when a loved one is diagnosed with a potentially terminal disease?

A: One of the hardest things to confront is the likely or imminent death of a loved one. This is one of the few instances in which modern medicine can be a mixed blessing: the ability to diagnose terminal illnesses has outpaced the ability to cure them. As a result, many more people face the challenge of carrying on with daily life in the shadow of certain death.

People differ in how they want to be treated while sick, but at heart we're deeply social creatures who receive solace from connecting with loved ones. It is important to be physically and emotionally available when a loved one is ill.

Friends and family alike tend to commit a common error in dealing with a seriously ill individual: they become anxious about the individual's state of mind and, consequently, don't interact candidly. Often they approach the individual timidly or not at all. This includes: Ignoring or downplaying the severity of the situation, offering false assurances, or distorting facts about the person's illness or prognosis. Acting overly cautious sends a message of apprehension about the person, which could convey the opposite of intended support.

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Instead, ask sensitive but direct questions, such as: "Is there anything about this diagnosis that you'd like to discuss?" An important goal: Keeping communication respectful, yet open, frank, and free. This will convey the message: "I care about you and I am here for you."

One of the greatest concerns among the terminally ill is being a burden to a loved one. Sadly, the terminally ill frequently cite the impact of their illness on caregivers as one of the worst things about the dying process. One way to alleviate these concerns is to help an individual experience a sense of mastery or control over his own care. This differs according to the illness, of course, but a good rule is to encourage a patient to do as much as she can for as long as she can.

Often, fear of the unknown is more distressing than physical pain for the patient. Honest discussions about death can occur with empathy and humor. Use empathy and humor in handling the situation. George, a man who watched his wife pass away from cancer, told me that his connection to her was stronger than ever while she was dying, because they laughed and reminisced, and she encouraged him to enjoy life for both of them.

How to Have a Candid Discussion About Death:

  • Explicitly and implicitly send the message: "You are not diminished as a person because of your illness, and I am here to be with you."
  • Overcome your caution. Your loved one will likely want to discuss her illness. So talk to her. But if she doesn't want to talk, she will tell you so.
  • Communicate that you accept the person unconditionally, and without rating him on the basis of his infirmity.
  • Life can be lived with an eye toward meaning, and even enjoyment, no matter how little time we have.

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