Over the past 25 years I have had the privilege of working with thousands of patients and grieving family members, and have been at the bedside of more than 500 patients as they died.
The dying have taught me that how we die matters. How we die matters to the person who is dying; to the survivors who are left behind to grieve; and to the next generation who must learn the values of compassion and connection in order to be a contributing member of a community.
The dying person's greatest fear. Most dying patients report that they fear the isolation and loneliness of dying more than the pain or the finality of death. Loved ones tell me they want to help, but do not know how because they have not been taught, and have not been exposed to the most common of human experiences.
We can be responsive to our most vulnerable citizens. We can learn how to play a significant role in helping the dying, their family, and the community face the transition of death. We can learn new attitudes, perspectives, and skills that will allow us to serve others and even serve ourselves.
We are more able to accept our mortality and the death of a loved one when we have consciously been of service. We can learn how to help prepare our dying loved one and ourselves for a peaceful and authentic death.
The dying have taught me that no one has to die alone. But they are often left alone because of family members' and professional caregivers' fears and anxieties. Those fears stem from one's attitudes, assumptions, lack of experience and lack of knowledge. We learn those limiting beliefs and behaviors because, as a culture, we do not have adequate language or exposure to the natural experience of death and grief. We can transform our fears with role models, exposure and experience, information, and piercing self-reflection.
The myths of death. It is our myths about death, dying, and illness that interfere with our acceptance and ability to be compassionate. We accept these myths as truths. We do not often question or investigate those beliefs. You can look around at behaviors, listen to the media, and watch our avoidance of the subject so as to keep death "in the closet". Some of our myths and misconceptions are that death is:
- a failure ("The patient did not try hard enough" or "he can't die on my shift")
- a punishment ("He smoked so it's his fault, or payback")
- the enemy ("Death should be fought at all costs")
- a "dial tone" or the end of consciousness (Research and reports from millions of people who have had a near death experience refutes this idea)
- painful (Based on the reports of resuscitated patients, what a family observes on the "outside" is not what the patient experiences on the "inside" during the process of letting go)
- the end of a relationship (One of the tasks of healthy grief is to come to an understanding of the ongoingness of love and the relationship with the deceased)
We must confront the myths of dying so that we can connect with and companion the dying, providing them with the elements of care they most need. Repeatedly and consistently, the dying have told me that they need:
- to be listened to;
- to be touched; and
- to be given permission to let go.
A corrected course of action. Our loved ones can experience the last months, weeks, and days of their life differently if they are not alone, free of pain, and know they are important. Instead of focusing on the imminent death, we all can pay attention to the life that is still being lived and reinforce our loved one's value within the family and community.
You can make a difference. You can be of service. In the blogs to follow I will be discussing ways that we can intervene and make positive contributions to the dying person’s journey. I will be writing about the attitudes, knowledge, skills, and competencies that alter this journey from a medical, technical response into a spiritual path and reward unto itself.