Of all of the worries you may have about death, concerns about your loved ones will probably be fairly high on the list. Concerns about dying and family might include worries for their future, not wanting to be a ‘burden’, or even wanting to make peace with loved ones with whom you have had differences.
It’s unlikely that your death will be an experience that affects only you. It is likely that others in your life – family, friends, medical professionals, work colleagues, neighbours and so on will also be on the journey with you.
Death is often – although admittedly not always – a social or ‘community’ experience.
As a result, it may be that as well as dealing with your own troubles, you are also thinking of friends and family at this time. You may have worries about how your loved ones will be affected by you dying.
Lucy O’Donnell from Fernhurst, Sussex, was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. She says: “My immediate thought was, ‘What did I do wrong?’ And my next thought was ‘What about my family? What’s going to happen to them?’ I tried to organise everything, so I wouldn’t be a burden to anybody.”
There is a balance to be struck between these natural worries, and a sense of letting go.
You may worry about being a ‘burden’, whereas in fact, it’s perfectly normal to want to be well cared for, treated with dignity and to be able to freely express your emotions.
Ninety-four year-old Nancy Dean from London admits this can be a struggle.
She says: “I don’t like being a nuisance. I don’t like being dependent on people for everything. It’s quite hard to do, when you’ve always been independent. I’ve done things for other people, and now other people are having to do things for me.”
Sister Alice Thomas, a chaplain at King’s College Hospital in London, understands this issue. She says: “I find that first and foremost, most people who feel like this just want someone to listen to their concerns. Simply being allowed to express them freely can be helpful.
“When listening, I share the perspective that they are the same person that they were before they lost their independence. Some of their capacity may have gone, but not their human dignity.”
Some people discover that even as they are starting to come to terms with dying, their friends and loved ones are finding it hard to deal with. As a result, they may not want to talk about your approaching death, either because they find it upsetting – or they worry about upsetting you.
While it’s important for you to feel that you can talk openly with those around you, some people find it easier to confide in someone other than a close family member. This might be a friend, a chaplain or a carer. You might find this a helpful first step in opening up wider conversations with those closest to you.
Of course, talking openly with your loved ones may not be straightforward for other reasons. Perhaps there are rifts within the family, or difficult relationships that have developed over the years. You may feel like you would now like to resolve these differences.
Dr Elizabeth Lee, author of A Good Death, says: “Many people come to the end of their life with unfinished business. Should you have such business, the question is do you want to finish it before you die?
“Estrangements within the family are very common. The enormity of what is happening to you can often make former arguments and feuds pale into relative insignificance. Now can be a time for reconciliation, of healing and coming together.”
However, Dr Lee also recognises that it’s not always that easy: “You may be too angry to contemplate any form of reconciliation, and may yourself reject overtures made towards you. Perhaps you may feel differently later on in your illness, so take time to think about these things.”
Sister Alice has seen the benefits of reconciliation first hand. She says: “I once worked with a dying patient who found it hard to pray the ‘Our Father’ because of the words ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.
“He felt that he couldn’t forgive his family for past wrongs. I suggested to him that he might invite his family to visit and that I was happy to be there with him if that was helpful.”
She adds: “He agreed and the family were delighted to receive the invitation. When they arrived, I emphasised to everyone that this moment was about looking forward, rather than back at the past – and the reunion was a happy one. I slipped out and left them to be together. He died several days later much more at peace.”
At the other end of the spectrum, some people who are dying feel that others are making too much fuss around them, and that actually, they would like some time alone.
If that is the case with you, it’s OK to say so. The world will not come to an end.
It’s also important to remember that your loved ones may have their own private struggles with the situation. They may be worried about their financial future, feeling run down or even overwhelmed.
They may even be feeling guilty for worrying about themselves. While you have enough on your plate, helping them understand that it’s OK for them to have concerns too can bring real relief.
At this difficult time it’s important to remember the power of communication. Read more about helping people to talk.
The day before his execution, St. Thomas More – who was imprisoned in the Tower of London – wrote one last letter to his daughter Margaret. The letter shows that his first concern was for his family and friends. It began:
“Our Lord bless you, my good daughter, and your good husband, and your little boy, and all yours, and all my children, and all my god-children, and all our friends.”