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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 follow-up conversations.

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.

Dr. Debra

Feel free to write me with your questions.

Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.

To read previous 'Ask Dr. Debra' articles, please visit www.wetnoodleposse.com, where Dr. Debra is a regular contributor, or click here to view the archives.





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