Receiving a terminal diagnosis can come as a huge shock. Even if it has been anticipated, it takes a lot of time to recover from what can feel like, a physical blow. The one who is poorly has a lot to contend with and may be going through bouts of anger, sadness, regret, guilt to name a few of the emotions which swirl around at that time. It is a time of adjustment for so many aspects of their life and it takes time to adjust to the idea that life will have a finite end sooner than they and their loved ones imagined. It might be a time of turmoil and upset or it may be that the person feels ready and accepting of their death, it is hard to predict till it happens.
But what of those who stand beside the dying patient? The word which comes to my mind is impotence. What can we do when we feel impotent to help? The ground does not only shift under the patient, it shifts significantly for loved ones and friends too. Just at a time when the patient puts themselves in the hands of experts (doctors and nurses and other professionals), those who love them can feel disempowered to help and support them. That impotent feeling which might be expressed as "what can I do", can feel very frightening. It can be accompanied by the idea that you need to do something, but what exactly? In fact, 'doing' can become a divertion away from just 'being with'.
People who feel uncomfortable about the terminal diagnosis of someone they know may well vacate themselves from the dying time either physically or emotionally or both. It is a sad but true statement. If, on the other hand, someone is able to tolerate their own feelings of fear, anxiety, inadequacy and grief alongside their love for that person, then the stage is set for them to support during this difficult time. I want to acknowledge how hard this can be at times.
What might that support look like? Well of course, it will involve practical jobs like taking someone to medical appointments, helping with medications, offering meals and drinks and at some point maybe personal care when needed. It might be that you strive to make life as normal and fun as it possibly can be. These things are all vital but probably the most important thing of all is to just be there, to show up and to stand alongside with love in your heart. I cannot emphasize how powerful that is. You didn't run away, turn away or shun the one who is dying rathermore you stand in solidarity in the face of the illness and you really see your loved one as themself. If relationships have been difficult in life, this can be challenging but also very rewarding and it can open the channels for a different relationship to be formed at the dying time. There can be healing within that period of time which can alleviate grief in the longer term too.
With love in your heart, with empathy, understanding and warmth you don't actually have to say anything (though of course, you might well do). This is what is called compassionate presence
. It does not have to have words or actions because showing up is enough and it can be felt from long distances as well as close up. It emanates from the heart space and it is of invaluable comfort. So that is why, should words fail you, just showing up can be enough. Don't underestimate the power of your loving presence for those who are dying. It is truly a beautiful thing in the real sense of the word.