Ask Dr. Debra
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Dear Dr. Debra,
My father is dying. The doctors give him two weeks
at the most. I don't know how to tell him. Every time I think of
trying, I start to cry. I'm a basket case. Help.
A sad daughter
First of all, I want to express my condolences.
This is a painful and trying time for you and the rest of your
family, and a loved one's dying is different from all other life
transitions. Most life situations are repetitive enough that with
practice we learn how to manage them and what to say to the people
involved. But deathbeds--especially that of a parent--are not
something the average individual experiences more than once or maybe
twice in her life.
When someone is dying, it's common to avoid
speaking to him about the reality of the situation. While it's
important to give supportive, uplifting talks to someone who's
seriously ill, there comes a time when priorities change, and you
must face this last, important phase of your loved one's life--to
help him die.
I doubt the news will come as a surprise to him.
Usually, people toward the end know they are dying--unless they are
in denial. Sometimes, all you need to do is ask a question, "How do
you feel about dying? Are you ready to go?" Many times you will
receive the reassuring answer that he is ready to die.
In your case, you need to sit down by his side,
take his hand, take a deep breath and say, "Dad, the doctor says
that you are dying. He is only giving you two weeks to live." Then
be silent and wait for him to respond. If he remains silent, ask if
he'd like some time alone to think about the idea before the two of
you discuss it further. If he starts to talk, follow his lead. He
might begin to have a serious conversation, or he might talk about
something totally unrelated. Unless you've seen prior signs of him
not understanding new information, assume that he doesn't want to
talk about his death right now. If you've been in the habit of
repeating information to him, you might need to clarify that he
understood what you said.
At this time, you don't have to have a detailed
conversation unless he seems to want to. You can discuss funeral
arrangements, wills and flying in family members in a later
conversation. But don't wait more than a day or two to have the
If you and the other family members don't have
the "dying discussion" then opportunities for loving and healing are
lost. One opportunity is for you to say anything you need to say
to him. This is an important time of forgiveness, healing and love.
Maybe you've never told your father you love him. Maybe you need to
say, "I forgive you for the times you hit me." Or you might need to
ask forgiveness, "I'm sorry I didn't visit you more."
These final conversations can also be times of
reminiscing, even if the dying person isn't able to respond or
doesn't seem conscious. Trust that he can still hear you. Tell
stories of the happy times: "Remember, Dad, that time we went
camping. Ned and I stole the neighbor's canoe, then tipped it over
in the lake. You were so mad at us, you yelled and made us return
the canoe and apologize. But later you let us roast marshmallows
over the campfire. Remember the hikes we all took around the lake,
how you taught us about the different kinds of birds? We'd get up
early with you to fish. That was the best vacation."
Make sure you mention what you have learned from
your loved one and how you are grateful to them. When my father was
dying, I had several conversations with him about how much I loved
him and what a good father he'd been. I made sure to talk about the
experiences he'd provided for me and what I'd learned from him.
But what if you are at the deathbed of a parent
who's never been there for you or has been abusive? Many times, the
weeks, days, or hours before the death provides some quiet time
where your parent is ready to listen to you or to make amends for
his previous treatment of you. Don't just brush aside this
opportunity just because you're uncomfortable. Grab it with both
hands, for it will bring you some vital healing. It's okay for you
to say, "Dad, I've been angry at you for a long time for how you
treated me." Mention a few specifics, but don't, at this point, go
into a lot of detail. Then say, "Dad, I don't want to be angry with
you anymore. I want to feel the love for you that I know is in my
heart. I want you to feel that love from me, too."
Don't expect much of a reply. The important thing
is that you said the words. Obviously your parent has never been
good at making amends. But take what you do get in the remorseful
way that he probably intends. Maybe, he physically can't reply, but
you can see the remorse in his eyes. Maybe he's unconscious, but
know that his spirit is asking for healing with you.
If he does show signs of wanting to discuss the
situation, then open up more. This is the last chance for the two of
you to mend fences. Use it.
The second opportunity is for the person who is
dying. If they are lied to about their condition, then they don't
have the opportunity to emotionally and spiritually prepare
themselves for their death, express any final wishes, say good-bye
to friends and loved ones, tie up final loose ends in their life,
and make arrangements for their funeral.
Even worse is someone who knows he is dying, but
his family refuses to talk about the truth with him. He's left with
these bottled-up feelings or words he can't express. At this point,
he has the choice to be firm and talk anyway--something he might not
have the energy to do--or give up and stay silent.
By the time my father died, I'd expressed
everything to him that I needed to say. Although I grieved his
passing, I also had a deep sense of peace and comfort that I had no
remorse, nothing left unsaid. I cannot tell you how much that peace
sustained me through the painful time of loss and to this day.
I wish that peace and comfort for you.
Feel free to
me with your questions.
Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who
specializes in relationships and communication techniques.
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