Helping the Dying to Live

One day we will all have to visit, help, or comfort a dying person. How should we treat someone with a terminal illness? Shouldn’t we treat them the same way we treat anyone else? Why should we treat them differently when there is no difference between us. After all, aren’t we all dying?

Yes, we are all dying, but until we take our last breath, we are all living.

And that’s where the emphasis belongs, for dying is about mourning and living is about celebration. So, let’s celebrate the remaining time we have together. Let’s enjoy warm embraces, friendly smiles, and boisterous laughter.

When we are told that a parent, spouse, child, sibling, or close relative has a terminal illness, we may have to decide between Hospice or Palliative Care. The advantage of a hospice is the patient will be in a safe environment and have all their needs met. Yet, some will prefer to care for their loved one at home, and the patient may prefer to be home as well.

But those who make that decision need to understand that the only thing more difficult than caring for a terminal patient is getting over the grief of their death. You see, the care of a terminal patient is a full-time job. In fact, it is an all-day job. What’s more, you will probably have to change your sleeping habits. If you sleep at night for eight hours, you may expose the patient to harm. So, instead of eight hours sleep, you may wind up taking four two-hour naps a day. And after the death of your loved one, it may take your body two months or longer to readjust to sleeping for eight consecutive hours.

If you decide to look after a loved one, make sure you enroll in a palliative program. You will need weekly visits of trained specialists to help with pain management and monitor the care your loved one is receiving.

On the other hand, if you decide to place the patient in a hospice, don’t make the mistake of waiting until the very last minute. For the sake of increasing the quality of life for your loved one, place them in the care of experts early.

Whether you choose to care for your loved one yourself or place them in a hospice that you visit daily, it will take an enormous toll on you. However, don’t let that discourage you, for you have the strength to do the right thing. You may find the following words of Marianne Williamson helpful.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

To make your presence as valuable as possible for the patient, maintain a positive attitude. Enthusiasm is contagious and it may just be the elixir your loved one thirsts for. When the renowned Menninger Clinic was still in Topeka, Kansas, they did a study on 400 spontaneous remissions of cancer and found the only thing the patients had in common was a change in attitude for the better. You never know, your positive attitude may result in the patient’s cure or remission! If not, it will surely result in a higher quality of life.

Being a good caregiver calls for KNOWLEDGE, HARDWORK, and a good ATTITUDE.

How important are these three ingredients? Well, to find out, make the letter “A” equal “1,” “B” equal “2,” “C” equal “3” and so on up to “Z” equaling “26.” Then, change the letters of the words into numbers; add them up, and you will discover how important they are, expressed as a percentage.

Here’s what I mean. K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E becomes 11+14+15+23+12+5+4+7+5, which equals 96%. That’s important! H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K is even more so, for it becomes 8+1+18+4+23+15+18+11, and that equals 98%. How important is attitude? A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E is everything, for it becomes 1+20+20+9+20+21+4+5, which adds up to 100%!

Here are more steps we can take to enrich the lives of terminal patients:

1. Listen. Your loved one will probably want to share memories. Join in.

Relive them, and let him or her know how important those memories are to you. Also, your patient may raise some of the big questions, such as what is the purpose of life and what happens after death. When this happens, don’t offer answers. Rather offer a listening ear. The patient isn’t expecting an answer from you, but merely processing their own thoughts as they seek their own answers.

2. Accept. Allow your patient to be themself. If they feel angry, that is okay; they may be working through the grieving process. Their anger will pass. Don’t remove their dignity by trying to change them. Give them the gift of freedom to be themselves. In his book, “The Tao of Dying,” Doug Smith expresses this idea as follows:

“If there is anxiety,
let it reign.
A calm successor will eventually arrive.

“If there is anger,
let it reign.
A peaceful successor will eventually arrive.

“If there is denial,
let it reign.
The truth, of its own accord, eventually makes itself known.

“Every steadfast witness
experiences resolution.”

What MATTERS in life is not MATTER. Rather, it is the intangible. It is the difference we can make in the lives of others. Although you cannot stop someone from dying, you can help them to live. When that opportunity comes, embrace it. Yes, the experience will be painful, but the rewards of helping someone enjoy their final days and the exploration of the depth and mystery of life will leave you far richer than when you began your journey.


1. Book:

THE TAO OF DYING: A Guide to Caring by Doug Smith, Caring Publishing, 1997.

2. Online Books:

The Natural Death Handbook

Handbook For Mortals

SICK TO DEATH: Reforming Health Care for the Last Years of Life

Improving Care for the End of Life