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When my sister, Cindi, was told her cancer had metastasized and was terminal, she refused to accept the diagnosis. I empathized as she sought out alternative treatments in the U.S. telling us she was not going to die.
The hard thing was that I knew intuitively she was actually dying. I knew the end was coming and wondered how she would come to terms with it and how we would all help her husband and children come to terms with it.
When my foster father was hospitalized a few years later after suffering two heart attacks in a day and five in a year, I also knew he was dying. His health had not been good in a long time and my intuition told me he would not be leaving the hospital.
I gently suggested to him one day that he might be seeing Cindi soon. He replied he wasn’t ready.
I can only imagine how devastating it must be to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to die in the near future, and know from experience how horrible it can feel to accept someone you love is dying.
This article, however, isn’t about death and denial. It’s not about the practical things loved ones need to consider when someone is dying. It’s about coping with a loved one’s terminal illness.
Helping professionals describe the feelings of loss someone goes through before someone actually dies anticipatory grief. It can be a gut wrenching, awful experience, it can feel unreal, it can be shocking, or it can be a myriad of other feelings, intense or mild.
Grief is very personal. What’s important to know though is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. When a loved one is dying, you may see lots of different expressions of grief from everyone around him or her.
Anticipatory grief often changes as the person’s health deteriorates further. It’s common to feel like you’re on a rollercoaster of emotion.
I once read that friends and loved ones can feel like they’re in a marathon or a sprint before the end comes. There’s so much that needs to be done, there’s so much that could be said, there’s support to give to the dying person, and there’s support to give to themselves. It can seem like it’s never-endingly exhausting and at the same time can feel like there’s not enough time.
People may feel tempted to spend every spare moment with the dying person and ignore their own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. You may feel overwhelmed with guilt thinking about taking some time for yourself or other people in your life.
It is important, however, to try to get something good to eat, to get some sleep, to take some time away so you can rejuvenate yourself—even in the smallest of ways.
It can also be helpful to talk with other supportive people—whether they’re in your family, they’re friends, they’re professionals, or they’re members of a support group.
Part of this self-care may include taking shifts with other people to be with your loved one. Although you may feel guilty about not being there all the time yourself, other people need and want to see your loved one too, and the dying person may feel exhausted if too many people visit all at once, or if they stay too long.
Self-care is particularly important as the end draws near. It can be really difficult to see the person you love become sickly and frail, to experience labored breathing, or to go in an out of consciousness. Taking care of yourself at this time can help you maintain the physical, emotional, and spiritual resources you need both personally and for the person who is dying.