by Ken Rolheiser
Visiting the dying

It is something we don’t do well. Dr. Audrey Nieswandt shares how awkward it was for her and how awkward it can be to us.
“I was young and stupid. The man who had hired, mentored and befriended me was…down the street, dying… I needed to go see him. 
I made excuses: “He’s not family… He won’t want me to see him like this… My youth and inexperience and fear kept me away. He died. I wept alone in my room.”

Nieswandt still regrets the event. She wishes she could go back to visit her mentor as he died of cancer. “I wish, I wish, I wish.” But retroactive wishes never come true. Life teaches us some tough lessons. 

Four years later Nieswandt cared for her mother as she was dying. She rubbed her feet with lotion, read her favorite Bible verses, helped bathe her, and simply sat with her when words disappeared. 

“Death and life commingle. In our culture, we just don’t admit it. We turn away from death. And often, we turn away from the dying,” Nieswandt says. “A dying person offers enlightening information and comfort, and in return those close at hand can help bring that person peace and recognition of life’s meaning.”

In Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying, hospice nurses Maggie Callahan and Patricia Kelley offer their insights into the world of death and dying. 

“As spectators, people not only have to cope with the pain of knowing that someone they love is dying, but must do so in a state of uncertainty, not sure of what to do, how to do it, or when.” 

Callahan and Kelley note: “Visitors may spend their time with the person wrapped up in idle talk about the weather, sports, or politics… [Perhaps unconsciously] their chatter keeps the dying person from being able to speak intimately.”

Callahan and Kelley offer this advice when visiting the dying:
1. Be ready… Prepare by reading about dying, about the illness. Check best times to visit.
2. Reflect. …consider what your person means to you. Consider what you may want to say.
3. Be open to the situation. Be ready for reality. Set your fear and discomfort aside.
4. Listen to what your person wants and needs from your visit. Ask open-ended questions. Listen to responses. Let them lead. Empathize.
5. Don’t argue or control the conversation. This is not the time.
6. Understand where they are. Dying people may be conversant, muddled, agitated, pragmatic, emotional, or any combination of states of mind. Accept where they are.
7. Don’t expect too much. Be ready to accept what you find, and don’t expect your person to comfort you.
8. Adjust and adapt. Be flexible. You are visiting as an act of love, respect, friendship, and connection. Be ready to switch topics or just sit and hold their hand if that is what they need.
9. Don’t withhold emotion. Listen to your person. Laugh with them, cry with them, be angry at the illness with them. Open your heart. Feel.
10. Be comfortable with yourself and be accepting of the dying process. Your loved one can sense your discomfort, confusion, or fear. You are there to support and love them, not the other way around. Let things happen. Let your love lead.

“I was sick and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

(565 words)