Sitting with a dying person

Accompanying someone to the point of death is a remarkable experience.  Nonetheless, you may find the anticipation emotionally and mentally exhausting. At  times fervently wishing for it to be over. And then you can feel guilty for thinking like this.  But it is a normal and understandable response to a very stressful situation.

Remember: Hearing may be present until the end, so never assume the person is unable to hear you.

  • Talk as if they can  hear you, even if they appear to be unconscious or restless.
  • If possible lower lighting until it is soft, or light candles, making sure they burn in a safe place.   Try to keep bright sunlight away from their face and eyes.
  • You can create a peaceful, soothing atmosphere by playing a favourite piece of music or songs softly in the background.
  • You might wish quietly to read a favourite poem, or a spiritual passage or religious text that means something to them.
  • Strong physical contact can be painful or invasive. Often it is best to sit beside the bed and gently hold their hand.
  • If appropriate arrange for end-of-life prayers to be said by a chaplain, vicar or priest, or by other faith ministers.

The Use of Gentle Touch

Gentle touch can provide comfort for the dying, and help communication on a deeper level. Even when a person is unconscious or semi-conscious, they might be able to respond with faint pressure from their thumb, or for example, twitch a toe. A light massage using aromatherapy oils such as rose, geranium, or lavender can soothe and reduce discomfort and distress. Those who are dying can also find gentle hand and foot massage relaxing and calming.

The dying choose their moment to go

More than we realise, people appear to choose the moment to die.   They seem to know who is strong enough to face the moment with them, and to protect those who aren’t.

It is not unusual for someone to hang on to life against medical odds until a relative or friend arrives at their bedside, or until a special anniversary or birthday. As mentioned before, a person who is confused, semi-conscious or unconscious may become lucid enough to be able to say a final goodbye before dying.

Some relatives may feel compelled to visit the dying person in the middle of the night, or experience being ‘called’ back to the bedside from, for example, a coffee break, just in time to be with them as they die.

In contrast, some people seem to make a deliberate choice to die alone. We have collected many stories of the dying who appear to wait until everyone has left the room—even for the shortest time—before they die.

We have also heard accounts of the dying seeming to choose to die with only particular people in the room.

It can be difficult if someone dies just as you have taken a break from being with them for many hours or even days. You may feel hurt that they haven’t ‘chosen’ to be with you at the moment of death. Or you feel guilty for believing you have let the person down by missing the crucial moment.

It may help to know that sometimes a person needs emotional freedom to die in peace on their own, or, perhaps because emotions are running high, they choose to die in the presence of other relatives or friends who are more able to cope with it.

 What should I do if I can’t be there?

When it’s not possible to spend time with the dying person, you can still feel connected to them.Memories of someone who is dying or has died are often bitter-sweet. Reminiscences become part of who you are. It’s important to find something that helps you achieve a sense of completion.  You might, for instance, want to create a special space where you can light a candle and say prayers—or whatever you need to do—to say goodbye.

Perhaps write them a letter expressing the things you wanted to say but never did. If they have already died, you might want ceremonially to burn the letter or bury it. Maybe you need to go into nature to say your farewells, or to buy a special tree or flower and plant it in their memory.

Funerals are of course central to the grieving process. They allow us to share our grief and to take part in an established social and personal ritual of saying goodbye, surrounded by others who also knew and loved the person.

If you find you are struggling with your grief, or holding onto unresolved feelings for this person, do consider talking to a bereavement counsellor.


3 thoughts on “Sitting with a dying person

  1. A lovely and very helpful piece. The ability to have the death experience you want should be far more accepted than it is in today’s society, where unfortunately death and dying is still a taboo.
    Within the website My Last Song (here I have to declare an interest, I created the website) is a ‘death plan’ template which covers the physical, emotional and spiritual elements you so rightly describe as important. The result of more ailing and terminally ill people having their own death plans will, I hope, be an increasing number of deaths with are more comfortable and comforting than at the moment when so many experience lonely and frightening end of lfe experiences, away from their loved ones.

  2. I sat during my friend Joe’s passing. I was his only friend. Even his own sisters never came. I believe it was meant to be. I remember being sick with the flu.

  3. I lost my elderly next door neighbor Jo in the early hours of Wednesday 12th December, i had been off college with a bad cold and I was able to return to school on Thursday morning where I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
    It was the saddest day that I could ever face.
    On the Saturday before she died, I forgot to go round to her house but I saw her son and told him to tell his poorly mother who is about to die, that me and my family say our final goodbyes.

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