When someone close to you is terminally ill, it’s still important to look after yourself. You will no doubt be facing your own ups and downs, as well as having to come to terms with losing your loved one. At this emotional time, it’s OK to accept help if you need it.
Accompanying a dying loved one on their final journey is likely to be one of the biggest challenges you will have faced. You may be caring for them, or witnessing their decline day-to-day. Without proper support, however, a death can take real toll on your own physical and mental health.
The loss of a loved one is an emotional journey, with many twists and turns along the way. For a moment, think back to the journey you have been on – which will be entirely unique to you.
Perhaps it all began when your loved one was first diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
If so, your journey may have included hopes for a cure, a tireless need to provide care, various plans being put on hold or cancelled and having to come terms with the news that the condition is terminal.
Of course, there may have been many special moments along the way too, but if your loved one has been terminally ill for some time, it is likely to have been an exhausting journey. Particularly if you are acting as a carer, it’s important to remember to consider your own needs as well as theirs.
Caring expert Penny Mares says: “Carers have needs of their own which are separate to and different from the needs of the person they care for.
“Recognising your own needs and doing something about them isn’t selfish – caring is tiring and stressful and carers who don’t look after themselves and recharge their batteries now and then sometimes become ill themselves.
“Spend a little time thinking about how you can increase the support you are getting for yourself.” Suggestions include taking a few hours off on a regular basis, organising respite care and talking to someone about what you are going through.
Sister Kathleen, of the Little Sisters of the Poor, London, cared for her dying mother at home and knows the struggles well. She says:
“I think it’s very important that any individual who is in that setting and is caring for someone who they love very dearly – but struggling because they often find themselves alone doing that – that they would seek someone that they could talk to and that they would bring in as much support and help as they possibly could.”
She added: “Whether you are in your own home caring or in a care setting, asking for support isn’t failing. It’s allowing you to continue to be want you want to be and what you need to be, as opposed to thinking ‘I have to do this alone’ and then maybe becoming unwell because of it.”
Even if you are not directly providing dying care for your loved one – perhaps you are a close friend or relative – you do still need to be gentle with yourself through this process.
Taking a break during visiting hours to get a sandwich is OK. Talking to other people about how you are feeling is OK. Finding it hard to know what to say for the best, again, is OK.
As you walk alongside your loved one, you may find yourself experiencing what bereavement experts call ‘anticipatory grief’– having to deal already with a sense of loss, even before he or she has died. If so, this is normal.
Penny Snow, author of A Referred Pain, was brutally honest about how she felt as she was losing her mother to colon cancer. Speaking of her mother, she wrote:
“She was no longer the person she used to be. The spark had gone and fear and weariness had come to replace it. I found myself withdrawing when I was away from her.
“I wanted to be on my own, to sleep on my own, where I could escape into fantasies and shut off the reality that was crowding in on me. I needed solitude, escaping into the world of a book or film enabled me to cope on my own.”
A dying person’s mental health may well be affected by their condition. They are likely to feel a range of emotions – and to have bad days and better days.
It’s also possible that they may be suffering from depression, which is surprisingly common among the terminally ill. As a result, their varying moods are likely to affect your own.
However, help is available for both you and your loved one. It’s important to nurture both your soul and body at this difficult time; otherwise, you will be ‘running on empty’. Discussing your struggles with a chaplain, priest, counsellor or trusted friend can be a real help.
Penny Snow found talking about her issues to be a real lifeline:
“I needed to talk”, she wrote. “Three women, Sheila, a family friend, Sue, my counsellor and a friend in Australia with whom I had regular telephone contact, all listened for hours as I expressed so much anger and fear. But for them, I would probably not have managed to survive without becoming very ill.”
Read about dying in a caring context.
St Jeanne Jugan, who founded a religious order to care for the elderly, advised carers:
“Jesus is waiting for you in the chapel. Go and find him when your strength and patience are giving out, when you feel lonely and helpless. Say to him: ‘You know well what is happening, my dear Jesus, I have only you. Come to my aid.’ And then go your way.
“And don’t worry about knowing how you are going to manage. It is enough to have told our good Lord. He has an excellent memory.”