Comforting the Terminally Ill

“When I first learned that Mother’s condition was terminal, I just couldn’t believe it. I was in a state of shock, unable to accept that my dear mom was going to die.”—Grace, Canada.

WHEN a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, both family and friends are deeply distressed and may not know how to react. Some may wonder if they should tell the patient the whole truth about his or her condition. Others doubt that they will be able to cope with seeing the one they love suffer and perhaps lose dignity because of the effects of the disease. Many worry that they will not know what to say or do during the patient’s final hours.

What do you need to know about the way you might react to such bad news? And how can you be “a true companion” and provide comfort and support during this distressing time?—Proverbs 17:17.

A Natural Reaction

It is only natural to be distressed when a loved one is struck by serious illness. Even doctors, despite regularly dealing with death, often feel troubled—even powerless—when faced with the physical and emotional needs of the terminally ill.

You too may have trouble controlling your emotions when you see a loved one suffering. Hosa, who lives in Brazil and whose sister was terminally ill, says, “It’s a very difficult experience to see someone you dearly love suffer constant pain.” On seeing his sister stricken with leprosy, the faithful man Moses cried out: “O God, please! Heal her, please!”—Numbers 12:12, 13.

We feel distressed by the plight of our sick loved one because we are made in the image of our compassionate God, Jehovah. (Genesis 1:27; Isaiah 63:9) How does Jehovah feel about human suffering? Consider Jesus’ reaction. He perfectly reflected his Father’s personality. (John 14:9) When Jesus saw people afflicted by illness, he was “moved with pity” for them. (Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 1:40, 41) As discussed in the preceding article in this magazine, when his friend Lazarus died and Jesus saw the effect death had on family and friends, he became deeply troubled and “gave way to tears.” (John 11:32-35) Indeed, the Bible describes death as an enemy and promises that soon both sickness and death will be no more.—1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 21:3, 4.

Understandably, you may feel an urge to blame someone—anyone—for the bitter news that a loved one is terminally ill. However, Dr. Marta Ortiz, who prepared a thesis on the subject of caring for the terminally ill, offers this advice: “Avoid blaming others—the medical team, nurses, or yourself—for the patient’s condition. This will only make relationships more tense and take away attention from what should be the principal concern: the needs of the terminally ill patient.” What practical steps can you take to help your loved one cope with his or her illness and the prospect of death?

See the Person, Not the Illness

A first step is to look beyond any debilitating or disfiguring effects of the illness and see the person. How can you do so? Sarah, a nurse, says: “I take the time to look at pictures of the patient when he was still full of vigor. I listen carefully as he tells me about his memories. This helps me to remember the individual’s life and history and not just to focus on the patient’s present condition.”

Anne-Catherine, also a nurse, explains how she sees beyond the physical symptoms of the patient. “I look the person in the eyes,” she says, “and I concentrate on what I can do to improve the condition of the patient.” The book The Needs of the Dying—A Guide for Bringing Hope, Comfort, and Love to Life’s Final Chapter says: “It is common to feel terribly uncomfortable at the sight of a loved one disfigured by illness or accident. The best thing to do under those circumstances is to look into the eyes of the loved one and see those changeless brown or green or blue eyes.”

Granted, such an approach requires self-control and determination. Georges, a Christian overseer who regularly visits the terminally ill, puts it this way, “Our love for our companion must be stronger than the illness.” If you focus on the person and not the illness, you benefit both yourself and your loved one. Yvonne, who has cared for children with cancer, says, “Realizing that you can help the patients to keep their dignity helps you to deal with their physical deterioration.”

Be Ready to Listen

People may be reluctant to contact someone who is dying even though they love the person dearly. Why? They worry that they will not know what to say. However, Anne-Catherine, who recently nursed a terminally ill friend, points out that silence has its place. She says: “Comfort comes not only from our words but also from our attitude. Pulling up a chair and sitting down, drawing near and offering our hand, not holding back our tears when they reveal what they are feeling—all of this shows that we care.”

Your loved one likely needs to vent his or her feelings—to communicate honestly and openly. Often, though, the ill individual is conscious that loved ones are uneasy and avoids talking about serious personal matters. Well-meaning friends and family may also avoid discussing topics that are of concern to the patient, even hiding relevant health information from him. What is the result of such a conspiracy of silence? One doctor who deals with terminally ill patients explains that the effort required to hide the truth “diverts energy from the more significant process of relating to others and facing up to the illness.” Therefore, if he wishes to, the sick person should be allowed to talk openly about his condition or the possibility of his death.

When confronted with death, servants of God in the past did not hesitate to express their fears to Jehovah God. For example, on learning that he was going to die, 39-year-old King Hezekiah voiced his despair. (Isaiah 38:9-12, 18-20) Similarly, terminally ill people must be allowed to express sadness at seeing their life cut short. Perhaps they feel frustrated because personal goals, such as traveling, having a family, seeing grandchildren grow up, or serving God to a fuller extent, are now beyond their reach. Maybe they are afraid that friends and family members will distance themselves because of fear of not knowing how to react. (Job 19:16-18) The fear of suffering, of losing control of bodily functions, or of dying alone may also weigh upon their minds.

Anne-Catherine says: “It is important for you to allow your companion to express himself, without interrupting or judging him or minimizing his fears. It is the best way of knowing what he is really feeling and of understanding his wishes, fears, and expectations.”

Understand Basic Needs

The plight of your companion, perhaps worsened by aggressive therapies and the aftereffects of such treatments, can disturb you so much that you might forget a basic need of the patient. It is the need to be able to make his or her own choices.

In some cultures, a family might try to protect the sick person by hiding the truth about his or her condition, even to the point of excluding the patient from decisions about medical treatment. In other cultures, a different problem may surface. For instance, Jerry, a male nurse, says, “Visitors sometimes have a tendency to speak about the sick person while standing at his bedside, as if he were no longer there.” In either case, such conduct robs the patient of dignity.

Hope is another basic need. In countries where quality medical care is available, hope is often closely associated with finding an effective treatment. Michelle, who has helped her mother through three recurrences of cancer, explains: “If Mother wishes to try another treatment or consult another specialist, I help her with her research. I have come to realize that I have to be realistic in my heart but at the same time positive in my words.”

What if there is no hope of finding a cure? Remember that the terminally ill patient needs to discuss death openly. Georges, the Christian overseer quoted earlier, says: “It is very important not to hide the imminence of death. This allows the individual to make practical arrangements and to prepare for his death.” Such preparation can give a patient a sense of completion and ease his concern that he might be a burden to others.

Of course, it is natural to find these matters difficult to discuss. But such frank talks offer a unique opportunity to express your deepest feelings sincerely. The dying person may wish to reconcile previous differences, express regrets, or ask for forgiveness. These exchanges may lift your relationship with the one who is dying to new levels of intimacy.

Providing Comfort During the Final Days

How can you provide comfort to a person approaching the end of his life? Dr. Ortiz, quoted earlier, says: “Let the patient make his or her last requests. Listen attentively. If possible, try to do what the patient wants. If it is not possible to fulfill the patient’s request, be honest.”

More than ever, the dying person may feel the need to remain in contact with those who count the most in his life. Georges says, “Help the patient to make contact with them, even if the conversations are brief as a result of the patient’s lack of energy.” Even if only by telephone, this contact allows for an exchange of encouragement and also for praying together. Christina, a Canadian woman who lost three loved ones in succession, recalls, “The closer they came to the end of their lives, the more they depended upon the prayers of their Christian companions.”

Should you be afraid to cry in front of your loved one? No. If you give way to tears, you are in fact giving your dying companion the opportunity to act as a comforter. The book The Needs of the Dying observes: “It is a deeply moving experience to be comforted by the dying, one that can be extremely important to them.” By consoling others, the one who has been the object of much care is able to rediscover his or her identity as a caring friend, father, or mother.

Understandably, circumstances may prevent you from being with your loved one during his or her final hours. However, if you are able to be with your friend in a hospital or at home, try to hold his or her hand right up to the end. These last moments offer an opportunity to express sentiments you may rarely have vocalized. Do not allow the absence of reaction to deprive you of saying good-bye and expressing your love and your hope of seeing him or her again in the resurrection.—Job 14:14, 15; Acts 24:15.

If you make the best use of these last moments, you will likely avoid feelings of regret later. In fact, these moments of intense emotion could in the future become a source of comfort that you draw upon. You will have proved yourself to be a true companion “when there is distress.”—Proverbs 17:17.

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Focusing on the person and not the illness benefits both you and your loved one

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A Way of Respecting a Patient’s Dignity

  In many countries, efforts are made to recognize a terminally ill patient’s right to die in peace and with dignity. Written advance directives provide a helpful tool to respect these rights and allow patients to die at home or in a hospice.

An advance directive will do the following:

• Promote communication with doctors and relatives

• Relieve the family of the decision-making process

• Reduce the likelihood of unwanted, useless, aggressive, costly treatments

An effective advance directive includes at least the following information:

• The name of the person acting as your health care proxy

• The treatments that you will accept or refuse should your condition become irreversible

• If possible, the name of the doctor who is aware of your choices

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Focus on the individual’s life and history and not just on the patient’s present condition