Hospice nurses Maggie Callahan and Patricia Kelley, authors of Final Gifts (Bantam, 1992) have tended the terminally ill for more than ten years. Their valuable book is written for caretakers, the dying and health care workers.
"When someone you love is dying you may not see gifts, but only grief, pain and loss. However, 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."
The authors go on to give concrete examples about messages the dying give which may seem like confused gibberish or drug-induced hallucinations. Messages about when death will occur, what the person needs to feel at peace, and what or whom is holding them back.
Caregivers should ensure that the will has been updated and if possible discussed with the family. All family members should be notified of the terminal nature of the illness. Finally, you can assist the dying person in taking care of unfinished business. If a person who needs to be forgiven cannot come to the bedside, the dying person can write or have someone write a letter of forgiveness and release.
One of the most important aspects of hospice care is making sure there is adequate pain control, which make take some fine tuning. Too little and the loved one is in agonizing pain; and too much and the dying person feels out of his mind, out of control and helpless in the face of drug induced hallucinations.
Caregivers should support the dying person's spiritual choices. For some, this means arranging prayers and services as well as organizing visits from clergy. Richard Reoch, in his book, To Die Well (Harper, 1996), compiles practical advice intended for both the dying and their helpers. His book is one of the few that offers information on complementary therapies for the dying from both eastern and western traditions, including herbs, aromatherapy, massage, relaxation techniques, shiatsu and visualization.
Visitors to the dying may feel uncomfortable about what to say or do. Donald Scanlan was a death and dying councillor for those dying from AIDS and founder of the Spiritual Healing Center in Vancouver. In a 1991 article in Share Vision, he advised, "Visitors to the dying need just to sit there, to be there. Unfortunately, many visitors and medical staff chatter away about drinks and bowel movements and such and so miss a last opportunity before death to communicate something real, perhaps even in silence."
Scanlan also used to try to get all the loved ones together to put conversations on tape. While it is preferable to do this sooner, it is never too late, to save precious memories and to take advantage of the wisdom of the dying. As Scanlan said, "when someone dies, a library burns."
What the dying have to offer us is lessons about how to live more fully in the present and what is truly important in our lives. Marie De Hennezel, author of Intimate Death, How The Dying Teach Us How To Live , (Knopf, 1997) a top selling book in France, says "We hide death as if it were shameful and dirty... It is nevertheless an immense mystery, a great question mark that we carry in our very marrow... Many of the dying in their last moments, send back a poignant message: Don't pass by life, don't pass by love."
In fact, the dying remind us to be fully alive in the present, to align ourselves with our true work and purpose, to fix our unfinished business and to express our love to those around us.
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