Dealing with terminally ill and dying people

“… dying people can face the reality of life much better than caregivers often realize” (Nouwen, Henry 1994. Our Greatest Gift. A Meditation on Dying and Caring, 91)

It is expected, rightly so, that we should be sensitive to the feelings and emotions of a terminally ill person. There is also the danger that in the expression of our sensitivity we may overcompensate – and this could isolate the ill person even further from the world in which they continue to live.

There is a general tendency to keep bad news from a terminally ill person. We often explain this by saying that we do not want those who are dying to be disturbed, and want them to die in peace. It may well be that the dying person has lost interest in what goes on around them, and this is a stage of the process that we respect. However, many terminally ill people may be many months (or as much as a year or longer) from death. And although they may be in pain and in the process of scaling down the life they live, they are still alive and we should include them in what goes on around them – even when that means sharing bad news. Many dying people have enough emotional energy to deal with the suffering and hardship of life. Severely ill people may continue to have the capacity for solidarity with others who are suffering or dying.

Terminally ill people often continue to feel the desire to know and experience what goes on in their family or in the world at large. Do not automatically keep world news, local news or family news from the terminally ill. Often, family members of the terminally ill say they do not want to “upset” the ill person. This might sound like a good thing, but it is not necessarily so.

All of us have the ability to live and bear our own pain in togetherness with others who are in pain. Terminally ill people are not dead until they die, and in caring for them, we should not infantilise them – even if, in time, they do lose some of their normal capabilities. Despite being terminally ill, people often retain the capacity to deal with uncomfortable life situations.

But it is best to deal and come to terms with bad news yourself before sharing it with the terminally ill. A sick person should not have to deal with the emotions of the carer as well as their own emotions.

As the carer, find a quiet place, get in touch with your own emotions (sadness, numbness, etc) and allow yourself to become aware of your body and physical responses (tears, shaking, physical pain, heartbeat, sweat, anxiety). Then take the time to calm yourself before sharing the news with the dying person.

In short: we should not dump our own struggles and emotions on the terminally ill, but we should also not be overprotective and safeguard them from all the pain and suffering in the world around them.

Frederik Nel

January 2017