Helping Your Family When a Member is Dying

You have learned that someone in your family is dying. You want to help the ill person
as well as your family. This article will guide you in ways to turn your cares and concerns
into positive actions.

The Shock of the News

Learning that someone in your family is dying is a blow to everyone the news touches.
We sometimes think this only happens in other families, but now it is happening to yours.
If the onset of the illness was sudden or unexpected, you and the rest of your family will
likely feel shock and numbness at first. This is a natural and necessary response to painful

You can only cope with this new reality in doses. You will first come to understand
it in your head, and only over the weeks and even months to come will you come to understand
it with your heart.

Be Aware of Your Family’s Coping Style

How you and your family respond to this illness will have a lot to do with how you as
a family have related in the past. If your family is used to openly talking about their
feelings with each other, they will probably be able to communicate well about the illness
and the changes it brings. Families in which people don’t talk about feelings and tend to
deal with problems individually will probably have difficulty acknowledging the illness and
its impact.

If you are reading this brochure, you are already taking steps to acknowledge that someone
in your family is dying. You may have found some family members want to discuss the illness,
while others seem to want to deny the reality and refuse to discuss it. Right now your family
may feel like a pressure cooker: you all have a high need to feel understood, but little
capacity to be understanding.

Adjust to Changing Roles

Families sometimes have a hard time adjusting to the changing roles the illness makes
necessary. If the head of the household is dying, the other spouse may now have to find a
job in addition to caring for the home and children, for example. If grandma acted as the
family’s binding force before she was ill, her family may now feel confused and disjointed
where they once felt strong and cohesive.

Such changes can alter the ways in which family members interact with each other. They
may act short-tempered, overly dependent, stoic or any number of other difficult ways.

Consider Getting Outside Help

Perhaps the most compassionate thing you can do for your family during this stressful
time is to reach out for help on their behalf. If someone in your family is caring for
the dying person at home, consider hiring a homecare nurse instead. Have groceries delivered.
Hire a housekeeper to come in twice a month. Your church or other community organization
might be able to provide volunteers to help you with any number of tasks. And family
counseling can be a healing, enriching experience that helps family members understand
one another now and long after the illness.

Hospices are well-staffed and trained to help both the dying person and the dying
person’s family. Their mission is to help the dying die with comfort, dignity and love,
and to help survivors cope both before and after the death. Contact your local hospice
early in the dying process. Because they don’t want to acknowledge the reality of the
impending death, too often families wait until the last few days of the sick person’s
life. But when they are contacted sooner, hospices can provide a great deal of compassionate
support and care up to six months before the death.

Encourage Open Communication, But Do Not Force It

As caring family members, we should encourage honest communication among the dying
person, caregivers, family and friends. However, we should never force it. Dying people
naturally “dose” themselves as they encounter the reality of the illness in their lives.
They may not be able to talk about it right away, or they may only feel comfortable
sharing their thoughts and feelings with certain family members.

What the Dying Person May be Feeling

Experiencing illness affects a person’s head, heart and spirit. While you wouldn’t want
to prescribe what they might feel, do be aware that terminally ill people may experience a
variety of emotions. Fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, sadness and loneliness are just a few of
the emotions they may feel-one at a time or simultaneously.

These feelings are a natural response to terminal illness. Your role as caring family
member should be to listen to the sick person’s thoughts and feelings without trying to
change them. If she is sad, she is sad. Don’t try to take that necessary emotion away from
her. If she is angry or guilty, that’s OK too. You may be tempted to soothe or deny her
painful feelings, but a more helpful response is to simply acknowledge them. Listen and

Help Family Members Tend to their Own Needs

When a family member is dying, he or she becomes the focal point for the family. Suddenly
everyone is concerned about that one person and her coming death. This is normal, yet it
places a great physical and emotional burden on everyone involved.

Family members should not lose sight of their own needs during this difficult time.
Encourage everyone to nurture themselves as well as the sick person. Get enough rest.
Eat balanced meals. Lighten schedules as much as possible.

Though the family is experiencing a serious time, they should still give themselves
permission to be happy. Plan fun events. Allow time to laugh, love and enjoy life.

Embrace Your Spirituality

If faith is part of your family’s life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you.
Singly or together, you may find comfort and hope in reading spiritual texts, attending
religious services or praying. Allow yourselves to be around people who understand and
support your religious beliefs. If some among you are angry at God because of the illness,
realize that this is a normal and natural response. Try not to be critical of whatever
thoughts and feelings each of you needs to explore.

Seek Hope and Healing

After the ill person dies, you and your other family members must mourn if you are to
love and live wholly again. You cannot heal unless you openly express your grief. Denying
your grief, before and after the death, will only make it more confusing and overwhelming.
Embrace your grief and heal.

Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an
event. Encourage your family to be patient and tolerant with themselves. Never forget that
the death of someone loved changes your life forever.

About the Author

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator and practicing grief counselor. He
serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins,
Colorado and presents dozens of grief-related workshops each year across North America.
Among his books are Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas and The Healing
Your Grieving Heart Journal for Teens
. For more information, write or call The Center
for Loss and Life Transition, 3735 Broken Bow Road, Fort Collins, Colorado 80526,
(970) 226-6050 or visit their website,

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