How To Visit the Dying in Hospitals
A friend died Sunday night. I was with her in the hospital room Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Here's a list of suggestions for those visiting the dying and their loved ones in hospitals. This is mostly for the loved ones in the room, and most of it assumes that the dying is unconscious. Kerry slipped into a coma as the weekend progressed, so even though we were ultimately sensitive to her, their were concerns for the family and friends who were there that this list addresses. I'll assemble another list of suggestions for being with a dying person who is conscious to the end. Hope this one helps!
- I don't care what I'm doing, when I get the call that so and so is dying, I drop it and go. I don't say, "I'll be there as soon as I'm finished Grey's Anatomy." Drop and go! They've called you or you've been informed probably when they couldn't possibly wait any longer to let you know. Get there! Everyone will understand. It is an honor that they've remembered to tell you and that they want you there or think you should be there. Unless of course you are Jesus... then perhaps you can get there late and raise them from the dead.
- Be willing to just be there. Don't feel you have to contribute to the quality of the atmosphere with gestures or words or facial expressions. Just stand or sit there calmly. Be natural I guess is what I'm saying. Don't put on aires. If you are a spiritual leader or whatever, don't think that you must behave like another class of human being. You are only human. Be that. Oh, and in regards to being human, treat the nurses with respect and dignity. They are human. All of the ones I know are incredibly heroic human beings (and I know many nurses!), are understaffed and overworked, and don't like people dying. Be nice to them. I always am, and it always pays off by relieving tension in the room. Put yourself in that poor nurses shoes: how would you like to come into the room to care for a dying person with an adversarial mob to deal with also?
- Take the lowest seat. In other words, if there are other visitors in the room, don't push your way to the bedside or to the center of attention. Hang back and you will be invited in closer if they want. I've been in rooms where I've been stuck way back by the door and I hear, "David, please come closer!" If they know you are there and don't gesture you forward, then just hang back. That's all that's needed.
- Don't take things personally. The last thing the family is concerned about, really, is your feelings. You are to be concerned with theirs! I've seen it before where visitors felt like they got ignored or were unappreciated and got upset over it. If you brought food and they didn't thank you, realize that there are other matters more important right now. Focus on their feelings and let every gesture be a service to them. Because this is about them.
- In the words of No Doubt, "Don't speak, I know what you're saying!" Silence is often far more powerful than words. Resist that human urge that demands that you must fill the awkward silence with words. False! Over and over again I've been told that it was so appreciated because I didn't try to do or say something meaningful, but I was just quietly there. In the face of death, we really can't assume we are in control and have answers. Everyone knows when you are trying to ease the tension or relieve the profundity of the event. They can smell your discomfort and fear. Appreciate the mystery! If the dying is at all conscious, you may speak softly and peacefully to him or her if appropriate.
- Don't be afraid of your own emotions. If you find tears coming to your eyes, don't resist it. Don't think you have to be strong. Don't be stoical. Plug in to the real emotional atmosphere of the room. When Kerry was dying, there were times of just nothing, times of real tears, and times of genuine laughter. She was a real clown with biting wit, and as some stories were shared, everyone couldn't help but laugh. Don't be dour in this kind of situation, but join in. On the other hand, I knew a minister who had a unique symptom of stress: he would laugh when nervous. Stay out of the room if this is the case! Don't steal the show. This isn't about you, but about them.
- Reach out and touch someone! I have never received negative feedback for touching people in this context, either with a hug, even a kiss on the cheek, holding their hands, putting my arm around their shoulders. Even with the one who is dying, I have often found myself stroking their hair or putting my warm hand on their forehead or rubbing their arms, even kissing them. This is not offensive, especially if you are friends or have been their pastor for years. I wouldn't do this if you are complete strangers. I assisted in a funeral once where the brand new minister displayed such an emotional show over the deceased that people exclaimed later, "My God! He didn't even know her!"
- If you bring something, let it be practical. When I was visiting Kerry in the hospital when she was dying, someone brought in a flat of bottled water. What a great idea! Bottles of water spread around the room because, as you already know, the air quality in hospitals can be pretty dry. Even a box of granola bars might be a good idea. There's a coffee shop in our hospital, and I'll often offer to get a coffee or tea for everyone, and I'm often taken up on it. Nurses are far too busy and understaffed to be thinking about the nutritional needs of the family. Don't bring flowers or chocolates into this kind of situation. I've been in situations where it has been okay, but in others where flowers and chocolates are symbols of celebration. Better not take that chance.
- If you have the privilege of being in the room when the person dies, realize you are experiencing one of the most profound moments ever. Stand or sit in complete awe and humility. I never say anything in this situation, but quietly and softly just place my hand on the closest remaining loved one. Don't be intimidated by the display of emotions and don't try to control the scene.
- Only read scripture or pray if asked. Or, as you are leaving, if you are so inclined, you might say, "Would you like me to say a prayer just before I go?" I sometimes do this, and it has yet to be refused. I made this list only because of the recent passing of our friend Kerry. It is not complete or comprehensive. I thought I would just share some ideas for those who may be experiencing this now or sometime in the future. It is only my humble advice. The fine art photograph is the creation of my friend, Jorgen Klausen, and is from his Fundy Sculptures series.