When President Jimmy Carter shared the news that he had chosen hospice care, he also reminded Americans that death is a part of life and that dying at home is one way to experience that transition.
The details of his home care were not released, but his health journey follows a similar trajectory of many people in the later years of life who experience repeated hospitalizations and weakening strength followed by hospice care and expected death. Most likely, even at 95 years old, his wife Rosalynn is one of his caregivers, along with other family members and medical personnel.
Around Thanksgiving, a friend’s uncle recently went through a similar experience. He had previously overcome three bouts of cancer and multiple heart ailments and surgeries, but at 88, he contracted covid, which sent him in and out of the hospital for months, on and off a ventilator, before his eventual death.
Although these months were challenging, his five children appreciated the chance they had to be with him during his final illness. He had experienced a long and fulfilling life, and he told them he had never been so happy as during those final weeks, when he was surrounded by the many people who loved him.
For caregivers, these final days, weeks, and months (or even years) of a loved one’s life can be an intense and emotional time, but they may also offer unexpected bursts of beauty. As one friend said while he experienced the “awful pain, bewilderment, and sadness” of watching his parent die, “There are blessings too. I’m trying to hold tightly to them as best I can.”
If you’re entering this journey, you may wonder how to find the blessings amidst the sadness. Here are some ideas that may help:
1) Feel the Pain
The only way through pain is to feel it, and yet the grief of watching someone die can be so immense that we don’t want to feel it. One way to both feel the pain, but not let it overwhelm us, is to create a time limit. If you feel overcome with sadness, give yourself permission to dive deep into that feeling for a set time, such as 15 minutes, and then promise yourself that you’ll take time to think of something else afterward, even if it’s only a silly TV show or YouTube video. By experiencing the pain, but not dwelling in it, you may be able to see the blessings of this time a little clearer. Also, sharing the sadness can help, so if there are others who love your friend or family member, welcome them to sit with you and your loved one. Share a hug. Look into each other’s eyes and feel the tears well. Also tell your dying loved one how much they’ve meant to you. These moments can be precious.
2) Bring in the Joy
If there are activities that your loved one treasures, consider enjoying those activities right up to the end. Favorite games, TV shows, or books may bring pleasure amidst the pain. One friend said that she and her family sang their loved one’s favorites songs by their bedside during the final hours. That moment of community—trying to remember the lyrics, trilling off-key, holding hands—was a special time of bonding and a happy memory in spite of the death that eventually accompanied it. Even when a loved one can no longer speak, they often treasure hearing from people who love them, so reach out to distant friends and family to give them a chance to say goodbye by phone or Facetime. Also, remind yourself how lucky your loved one is to have even one person who loves them so much that they want to be close during these final moments.
3) Remember: There’s No Right Way
Often, after a death, people review the preceding days or weeks in their minds, wishing they could do or say something differently, wishing they had pushed a doctor or nurse to provide a different course of treatment, wishing they had been there at the final moment when they had instead taken a well-deserved nap. It’s a typical human desire—to go back and redo things—particularly events that you wish could have a different ending. But of course, there’s no way to go back and change this event. You got through this incredibly difficult journey in the best way that you could. You did fine. You’re okay. Whatever you did or didn’t do, it was all right. Remind yourself this is true. You did the best you could in the moment, and that’s all any of us can do.
In 1987, Rosalynn Carter began the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving to promote support programs for caregivers.
We are praying for President Carter and his loving family during this time. Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and be well. —KK
Please consider making a donation to the Kathi Koll Foundation so you can help make a difference in struggling family caregivers’ lives. Thank you!
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