The 3 Most Important Things to Remember at the Bedside of a Dying Person

Cathal Mac an Bheatha

One of the hardest part of watching my father and later mother slowly die before me was not the physical death but watching their emotional pain and the pain of those who came to say goodbye.

When my father was given 9 months to live, we fought it with every medical treatment we could. However, soon he was half of the man I knew. One of the lowest moments was when the priest came to give him Holy Communion and he was slumped over (I found later out he had had a stoke) and peed. In his eyes, was the shame and anger of a body that failed him. He respected his faith so greatly that he felt he had dishonored the priest and himself. All I could feel was the pain of a broken man. Clearing up the urine was not the issue, if only moping up his honor from off the floor was just as simple.

My most searing memory of my mother was in her hospital bed. I had just told her she had to go into yet another surgery to find that part of her stomach that simply could not stop bleeding. I saw her fear and the tiredness from all the fighting. Then I stepped out of the ward to call my brother to tell him the news. When I returned, I found her looking up to the sky in prayer and despair. In utter helplessness and near despair; she prayed because she had nothing else she could do. I am not sure if she even believed it could help by then. However she prayed. The emotional punch in the gut I had at that moment wheeled me back out of the ward. I didn’t want her to know I saw her anguish. When I next walked in, I made a noise. It was more for me than for her.

Since I was a major care-giver for both parents as they slowly died; slowly meaning they, and I, and everyone around us, knew months ahead that it was always soon but never clear when; I observed the final farewells and emotional exits. Many of us stumble unconsciously over these moments since we never had any lessons in saying goodbye.

From this life experience, I humbly offer these 3 Things to remember at the bedside of a Dying Person for a more sacred conscious and considerate parting as the time draws near.

First

Speak to their Spirit and see their Spirit.

Many of us get overwhelmed when we see a dying person. The last time we saw them probably was at a festive event. Christmas, Thanksgiving, a wedding or something more social and now you see them a physical shell of the person they were before. We can get easily overwhelmed by this and the contrast is almost too much to take.

Look into their eyes and use your eyes to smile at them. Send your love in your eyes to their eyes. Fill their inner being with the compassion of your heart.

No need for words. Many of us will ramble something to ease our own discomfort in the situation. But consider how many people came in and did the same to them. That’s why my mother at her worse states refused to see anymore. She could not speak but gestured for a piece of paper and wrote in a scrawl, “I don’t want to see anyone.”

See their spirit. Train yourself to remember them at their best. The sound of their laughter, their favorite quote, their best dish. Look for and look at their spirit.

Second

Be aware that what you do say may be the last thing you say to this person. You may not need to say the wisest of things. No one can be wiser than someone in transition. They have seen a lot and suffered a lot and learnt so much about themselves before they leave. Your task is to facilitate a smooth and peaceful transition. So in your wisdom and compassion, be kind with your words.

This is not the time to go through grievances or to expect major decisions to be made. Just as in the first point, was to see their spirit and speak to it. I invite you to bring your own spirit to the bedside. Not your intellect or your emotional hang-ups and stories.

At this time, most of life and the history really doesn’t matter. The most precious moment is to be there and present to each other. Acknowledging how much you both mean to each other. Yes, there will be tears. These are tears of joys wrapped up in sorrow. It is only because you mean so much to each other that the parting could hurt this much.

Third

Even when the person seems to be sleeping or is semi-conscious and cannot reply or seem at a physical level, not to be awake or aware; their spirit and consciousness are still there in the room.

How many of us whisper sweet nothings to our children and partners as they sleep. We lay our eyes with love on the miracle of this person as he/she sleeps.

In the last days, my mother was shifting in and out of consciousness and the family would sit outside her room rather than by her bedside. I would remind my nieces that they could still speak to her while she was sleeping or seemingly unconscious as she could still hear them on another level. We are so used to interactions being in sound or sight, I deeply encourage you to use your sixth sense. Be open to seeing beyond what is on the surface. Sit by their bedside and graze softly at the person with love and compassion and celebrating the memories good and bad that you co-created. Then sit with your own mortality and what the loss of this person may mean to you. And wait for a sign from them, from yourself or from an angel or from life itself. Make this a sacred moment. It is one. Can you let yourself fully experience it?

My father passed when in 1999 when I was 28 and my mother passed in January 2016. She ‘threatened’ to die a few times before that so I had practice with sitting at the bedside of the dying.

I could not write this post any earlier because it was still too raw. I didn’t want to write it. It hurts even now to remember those times. That’s how traumatic those moments are to me. However, I offer this story for the many who have to sit with their loved ones as they transition.

I offer this because I was gifted with these experiences. Yes, gifted. So many people have told me I have such a lovely presence how I hold the space for them as a coach and mentor and friend. I can do this simply because I know how precious each moment of life really is so when I sit with someone; I sit with them as if it was the last time I would ever see them. People speak about how fleeting life can be. I know it as a fundamental truth.

I sit with the living now as I did at the bedside of my dying father and mother.

Perhaps you should too.

“I am at peace with the process of death and grieving. I give myself time and space to go through this natural, normal process of life. I am gentle with myself. I allow myself to work through the grief. I am aware that I can never lose anyone and that I am never lost. In the twinkling of an eye, I will connect with the soul again.” Louise Hay

In honor of Louise Hay — whose writing and legacy fed my soul