At the bedside
To alleviate discomfort, a dying person may be attached to medical equipment such as a syringe-driver, monitors and a respirator. This can be alarming for relatives and friends to begin with.
It’s also hard to be with someone who is semi-conscious, in physical or emotional distress, and who may be moaning or crying out. You may yourself feel very anxious and helpless, and at times, overwhelmed, vulnerable and lonely, especially when nursing staff are busy with other patients.
- Make sure you take plenty of breaks, although it can be hard to find a private place when things get tough. But there are often quiet rooms in hospices, and hospital chapels are usually open around the clock.
- You may feel guilty when you go home knowing you might never see the person again. That’s normal. Just make sure when you leave you say your goodbyes. These farewells can mount up as the days go by.
- Most hospitals, nursing homes and hospices do not provide food for relatives. Hospital cafes can be closed at weekends, and local cafes may be closed on Sundays. Snacks, especially from hospital vending-machines, can be pretty dismal, so consider bringing in your own food to help keep your strength up.
- Staff are usually happy to give you coffee and tea as you sit by the bedside. But it might be an idea to bring in a thermos so you can have a drink at any time. Drinking plenty of fluids is very important, particularly as hospitals and hospices can be dry, hot environments.
- If you are in an open hospital ward, don’t hesitate to pull the curtain round to get some privacy. Let the nursing staff know that’s what you want to do.
- Bring in a comfortable pillow and blanket – especially if you are staying overnight. Hospital chairs have upright backs and can be extremely uncomfortable after a couple of hours. If your relative is in a side-room, you may be able to bring in a bedroll so you can sleep on the floor. But check with the nursing staff first.
- Don’t be afraid to knock on the hospital chaplain’s door. They can also arrange for a priest, rabbi or ministers from other denominations to come and talk to you, or to say end of life prayers with you and your dying relative or friend. They will often come in the evening, if appropriate, to say prayers when you may not be there. More on the spiritual aspects of death.
- Let the nursing staff get on with their job of providing nursing care. It may feel more comfortable to leave the room when they are washing and making the dying person comfortable. But don’t be afraid to ask staff to provide extra mouth-care or to turn the dying person, or to inform them when your relative becomes distressed.
Above all, don’t be hard on yourself. This is a very difficult and challenging time. Phone calls to friends, family and care providers, and visits to the dying person quickly become part of your daily life, and the dying process can seem grindingly endless. But remember that in comparison to the dying person’s life-span, their dying process is usually a short, precious time for you, and for them.
- Understanding death and dying
- Signs that death is near
- Practicalities to think about when someone is dying
- Coping with family dynamics
- Further information and support
This content has been funded by Macmillan Cancer Support. It was commissioned as part of Find Me Help, Dying Matters' new online search tool which gives access to a comprehensive database of national and local organisations providing support and advice for people coping with death, dying and bereavement.