5 Things You Can Actually Do When Someone You Love Is Seriously Sick Or Dying

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but here’s the truth: We will all, at some point in our lives, have to deal with the death or serious illness of a loved one. Many of us have already been down that road before; if you haven’t, you’ll find yourself on it eventually. I write this not to make all of you crazy depressed, but to point out that death and illness affect us all. But although these challenges are universal, how to deal with dying—and how to help a loved one through it—is something that is rarely openly discussed, especially when you’re relatively young. It’s much easier to pretend that illness simply doesn’t exist until it comes to affect you or one of your loved ones directly; why get sad about something that hasn’t happened yet, right? Although there’s no need to obsess about these difficult topics, if we simply brush them aside, then we create an environment that doesn’t prepare us for the future, and it isolates people who are struggling with serious, potentially fatal, illnesses.

So let’s talk about it.

If you’re not currently in a situation like this, then nothing can fully prepare you for the experience of helping a beloved family member or friend grapple with sickness or dying. However, you can take a moment now to think about how you’d handle such a situation, and who you would call on for support. If you are already dealing with a loved one’s decline or illness, you have my sympathies, and you may find something useful here. Everyone’s circumstances are different, of course, and every case will be different. But read on for five things that anyone who is helping a loved one through serious illness or end of life should keep in mind.

1. Talk to your loved one about what’s happening

As tempting as it may be to bury your head in the sand, don’t just pretend like everything is normal. Your loved one may need to talk about what he or she is feeling, and you don’t want to make him or her feel like they can’t express their fears and questions. You can provide openers for these discussions (such as, simply, “How are you feeling about your diagnosis?” or “Is there stuff you want to talk about?”). If your loved one doesn’t want to talk about it, let it go and move on. Just keep that door open for when he or she does want to discuss his or her situation.

Finally, try not to brush of his or her concerns with phrases like, “Everything is going to be OK.” Optimism can be a great thing, but you don’t want to invalidate your loved one’s fears and emotions because it’s too difficult for you to talk about the potentially painful future. Just listen, and try to respond with love and sincerity. That’s really all you can do.

2. Discuss the practical things

As painful as it may be, it’s important that you talk to your loved one about the practical consequences of his or her illness or death, as well as his or her wishes regarding end of life care. Consider these questions, for example:

  • Does your loved one need to set up a power of attorney directive? (This document allows someone else to make health care or financial decisions for him or her if he or she becomes unable to do so.)
  • What responsibilities need to be handed off to other people? (This could include everything from work-duties to the responsibility of taking care of a pet.)
  • How does your loved one feel about the potential for being put on a ventilator? Or tube feeding? In the case of death, does he or she want medical staff to attempt to resuscitate? What preferences does he or she have in terms of end of life care and pain management?
  • In the case of a dying friend or family member, what are his or her wishes in terms of a funeral?

You may want to sit down with your loved one’s doctor or a social worker to discuss what other things need to be addressed. These questions will not make for a fun conversation, but having a frank discussion of them may help to relieve a lot of painful confusion down the road.

3. Find someone for you to talk to

Watching a loved one suffer through an illness is incredibly stressful for you, too. If your friend or family member is dying, it’s normal for you to be experiencing symptoms of grief. It’s important that you have a support system for you in place as you’re trying to act as support for someone else. Talk to a good friend who you know you can count on, or seek out a therapist to help you through it.

4. Take care of yourself, too

When a loved one is in pain, it’s normal to feel like you need to put your whole life on hold so that you can help him or her. But it’s important that you keep taking care of yourself in this process: get lots of sleep, eat regularly, exercise, see friends, and go out and do normal things from time to time. Remember that if you burn out or fall apart, you’re not going to be much help to your ill family member or friend. It benefits you both for you take care of your own health and sanity first.

5. Ask for help

If your loved one needs significant care, you can’t do it all on your own. Ask for help from other family members and friends. Their assistance could include things like taking over caregiving duties for an afternoon, picking up groceries, bringing over prepared meals, carpooling kids, helping with chores like housecleaning, or basically anything else that would make your life a little easier. Also look into professional caregiver services that may be available in your community through social services organizations or your hospital. Don’t let yourself feel guilty for passing some of the weight onto other people. If you’re going to help your loved one, you have to be healthy and functional yourself.

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