I began exploring the issues that I eventually wrote about in The Art of Dying after visiting my great aunt who was dying of cancer. She was in a hospital bed that was in her apartment. I tell the full story in the book. But I left feeling that I simply didn’t know what to do at her bedside.
At the Huffington Post today, Jeanne Dennis, a hospice director, offers some help to those who realize they may need to visit someone who is terminally ill. First, be present, she says. This is what I learned. Simply being there is what is important. Not what you say or how you act. Be.
“Listen,” advises Peggy Neimeth, a social worker who has done a lot of work with hospice and who recently lost her husband. “Listen to what the person’s feeling. Are they frightened, do they want to reminisce, do they want to talk about day-to-day details of work? Listen actively, perhaps prompting them: ‘Would you like to tell me more about this?’ Or the opposite, ‘Sounds like you don’t want to talk about that.’ Help them feel you really are there for them.”
Next, touch is extremely important, especially for those people whose mental abilities have declined.
Peggy Neimeth recalls her 92-year-old mother’s final hours, lying in bed, her eldest granddaughter stroking her hand. “Although my mother was blind and suffered from dementia and could make only repetitive sounds, I’m convinced she knew her granddaughter was there,” says Peggy. “She fluttered her eyes, and you could just tell she was at peace.”
If you simply can’t get to visit, because you can’t make the trip or get off work, or simply because you don’t feel comfortable visiting someone who is dying, Dennis suggests sending a card instead. It is enough to say that you’re thinking of this person. “Or, if you can go a step further, I am so overcome that I feel it would be better if I didn’t visit. But I value our years together as colleagues (or friends or cousins), and I will always remember_____________.”
These are all good suggestions. In The Art of Dying, I quote Dallas Willard on the importance of being spiritually present with someone. This goes beyond being in the same room, and it means to be able to be a spiritual comfort to someone, to have a spiritual depth that doesn’t require words. This kind of presence can be especially meaningful near the end of life.