In the days immediately before and after a loved one dies, time may slow to a crawl or pass in a flash. But how can people be sure to do or say the things they want to in that critical time period?
“Practically speaking, you need to pull a support system together,” says Sherri Auger, an elder-care planning consultant who co-wrote Now What? A Practical Guide to Dealing with Aging, Illness and Dying (Novalis, 2010) with health journalist Barbara Wickens.
Even better, if the death is not sudden, you can help your loved one to plan ahead so that his or her wishes for end-of-life care and a final remembrance can be carried out easily.
“It takes a huge burden off the family if they know they have done what you want them to do,” she said.
Auger, an only child, found out the importance of such planning 10 years ago when her father became ill. His illness took its toll on her mother, who also became ill and died three weeks later.
Auger then had to plan her mother’s funeral, settle her estate, sell her parents’ home and find long-term care for her father without much guidance or advance discussions about her parents’ wishes.
The process led Auger, who was then working in the corporate world, into the relatively new field of elder-care planning. She now teaches on the subject in the Toronto area and heads Caring Matters, which helps individual clients with elder care and estate planning.
Starting a discussion about end-of-life care and funeral arrangements with elderly parents is difficult and doesn’t get easier as parents get older, Auger acknowledges. Adult children approaching middle age should make out their own wills and put their funeral plans in writing, then raise the topic with their parents.
Here is some of Auger’s best advice for the time when a loved one is dying and the period immediately afterward:
“The centre of attention always has to be on the person passing away,” she said. Those in the room with a dying person must remember that “the last sense that people lose is the sense of hearing” and must give one another “space and respect,” acknowledging that not everyone wants to be in the room at a death and trying not to “put their own feelings on other people.”
As a person begins transitioning into death, he or she might “need to be given permission to pass away,” Auger said. Handholding and applying hand cream can be very welcome, but it is important to know too that some people might find it uncomfortable to be touched as the end nears.
Keep practical considerations in mind, such as the fact the dying person might not be wearing dentures and could find it difficult to speak.
“You cannot expect them to say their dying words to you,” Auger said. “Don’t leave what you want to say until the very end. Have the words you want to have with them before it reaches that stage.”
Last rites or a final blessing from a priest or other religious leader can ease the transition to death, she added.
Once death has occurred, “you don’t have to rush away.” Instead, Auger recommended that people “take whatever time you need to be with the person.”
She also recommended that after a grieving person returns home they should “mark that moment in some special way, with something pleasant” such as a hot bath.
In looking for support through the grieving process, she advised people to consult the many resources available through churches and hospice programs. Ask friends and family members for help, especially with tasks that match well with their expertise.
But be aware people closest to you might not be able to help “because they are grieving too.”
On a practical note, she advised next of kin of the deceased to avoid getting robbed from those who prey on the grieving: Ask someone to stay at the house during the funeral.