Simple Ways to Comfort a Dying Loved One
When a loved one enters into hospice care at the end of life, family members can feel a bit overwhelmed as they try to offer help in a situation they’ve never experienced before. Most of us haven’t been exposed to death and have never learned how to be with a dying person.
But even though it can be stressful at times, caring for a dying loved one is a great privilege and provides an opportunity to learn about the most significant passage of life. When you face this difficult crossroad with someone you love don’t shy away from being a caregiver because you feel unprepared to be of service to the dying. Here are some simple ways you can bring comfort to a dying loved one:
Create a quiet environment
The senses of a dying person are often enhanced so loud noises can be disturbing and unpleasant. Turn off the television, ask visitors to take their conversations to another room, remove the telephone, and minimize outside sounds that may come in through the windows.
Sit in silence
The dying person may appear to be asleep but often there is a great deal of “inner work” taking place as she processes any unfinished business from the past and lets go of attachments to life. This work can be fostered by simply sitting next to the person in silent support and with thoughts of love. If you already use prayer or meditation in your own life, this is a perfect opportunity to practice as you help create a safe space of love for the dying one.
Speak soothing words
When you do want to convey a message to your loved one speak softly and use words that help him with his inner work of letting go. You can remind him that you love him, that he has lived a good life, you will remember him, and it’s okay for him to let go when he is ready. But remember to use words sparingly so that your loved one can continue to focus on the inner work that is taking place.
Dim the lighting
Bright lights can be disturbing to a dying person, again because of enhanced sensitivity, so turn off any overhead lights and use a few small lamps in the room to create softer illumination. Place the lamps where they brighten up a workspace but not so that they shine directly on the patient.
Keep the patient’s mouth moist
Use sponge sticks saturated with water to frequently moisten your loved one’s mouth and lips. The body begins to dehydrate during the dying process, which can cause uncomfortable dryness of the mucous membranes. This simple gesture can make a huge difference in your loved one’s comfort level during the final days of life.
Play soft music, if helpful
Some dying patients respond well to soft background music, which can enhance relaxation and ease anxiety. But others can become more agitated with music that does not resonate with their own process at the time. Play slow instrumental music that has been written specifically for dying patients such as harp music or the a cappella vocals of Threshold Choir. Watch for any signs of discomfort from your loved one and be prepared to turn the music off if needed.
Use gentle touch
Whenever you need to move or turn your loved one speak softly to her first to tell her what is going to happen, then touch her arm or hand gently to prepare her for the motion. You can hold your loved one’s hand or offer very gentle massage as long as that seems to be soothing to her. In the last few hours of life it is sometimes better to stop touching the patient so that she can keep her awareness on the dying process rather than on the physical realm she is trying to leave behind.
The most important skill you will require as you care for a dying loved one is the ability to tune in to his state of being. Listen and observe carefully to help you recognize when something is causing discomfort or when there is a need for your closeness. Be ready to provide whatever gentle kindness you are called upon to offer and trust that you will know instinctively what to do when a need arises.
These moments spent with a loved one during the last few hours of life are precious and profound and they can change you for the good forever. Say yes and show up to offer comfort when this opportunity occurs in your own life. You won’t regret it.