How to Be With a Loved One in Their Last Hours of Life

 In Advice

Family members I have worked with in hospice have frequently asked me what they should be doing for their loved one as they reach the last hours of life. Since most of us have never been in that situation, we cannot imagine what it may look and feel like to sit with someone who is dying. Naturally, we feel anxious and somewhat fearful about such an unknown and mysterious event, but as many hospice workers and death doulas will explain, it’s not as difficult or frightening as it seems.

To begin with, there is little for us to do as we sit with a dying person except to ensure that they are as comfortable as possible with adequate medication for pain, clean bedclothes, and moistened lips and mouth, which the hospice staff will help manage. But what matters most is that we understand how to be with our loved one during that sacred time of transition. Here are some suggestions:

Be present

Try to be physically present at your loved one’s bedside if possible. Sitting vigil in the same room can be very powerful. However, if you cannot be there for any reason, you can still sit in vigil wherever you are located. Turn off all distractions, like the television, radio, and cell phone. Focus your attention on your loved one, which you can do at a distance by looking at a photograph if necessary. When your mind wanders, bring your thoughts back to the present moment and remember that you are participating in a sacred ritual.

Be calm

The energy you bring with you to the bedside will have an impact on your loved one and others in the room. This can also be true if you are watching from a distance. Use deep breathing to slow down your heart rate, bring your thoughts into the present moment, and get into a state of calmness.

Be yourself

You don’t have to do or say anything special during this time; just be your true self. As they near the end of life, I’ve found that patients appreciate authenticity and see through our pretenses and attempts to do the “right” thing rather than the true thing. Know that you are good enough just as you are and that your presence alone will make a difference.

Be quiet

The hours before death seem to be a sacred time for many patients as they do the work of leaving this life behind. Have reverence for this space and speak softly, if at all. Use brief phrases to communicate whatever you feel a need to say, such as “I love you,” “thank you for all you’ve given me,” or “you’ve done well with this life.”

Be gentle 

Some empaths who work with the dying recommend that you limit physical touching because it may be too distracting for the patient. But you may want to try gently holding a hand, touching the face or hair, or placing your hand over the heart of your loved one. Watch for their response to see if your touch seems welcome or disturbing. Remember that it’s perfectly fine to sit quietly without any physical contact at all, and for some, it may be preferable. If you are sitting vigil at a distance, you can place your hand over your own heart.

Be loving

Hopefully, you have had an opportunity earlier to work through any old resentments and anger you might harbor toward your loved one. This sacred space of dying is not the best place to review those sentiments, though you may want to softly speak “I forgive you” if you can say it with authenticity. Focus on sending love through your heart to the dying person and imagine that they are surrounded and filled with the soft light of love, which you can do from a distance as well.

Be accepting

There is a mystery about the dying process that none of us can understand. We cannot predict the exact timing, how long it will take, or what our loved one might say or experience. Be open to whatever happens and however long this process might last. Let it unfold naturally and try to feel gratitude that you are able to be a witness during this sacred time.

If you have an opportunity to be with a loved one during their last hours, I hope you will accept it because that experience might change your life. Your own questions and fears about the dying process might be answered and you may discover that life is richer and more meaningful when you acknowledge that it doesn’t last forever.

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