Emotions and Spirituality
How can I help my mother prepare for death?

It’s normal for people to feel a range of emotions when they’re told their illness is progressing and death isn’t far. Commonly people say they feel numb, sad, helpless, disappointed, angry or afraid. Family members often report similar reactions. There really are no specific words to alleviate the stress of the situation, but there’s a lot you can do to give your mom some comfort.

The best approach generally is to be attentive to your mom. Let her know you’re there to support her. Often people assume their support and intentions are obvious and they don’t need to say it out loud. Yet it can give someone a lot of comfort to hear words along these lines: "I love you and I care about you. I don’t like to see you going through this difficult situation. You’re not alone. I’m here for you whenever you need me."

Listening may be the single most helpful thing you can do. It shows your mom she’s important to you, that you’re attentive to her needs and that you’re available to her. It’s okay to ask your mom what she wants to talk about, and what she doesn’t want to discuss. Consider asking what she thinks about her situation, and whether she’s afraid. There are some things you may want to avoid saying. For example, people often say, "I know what you’re going through." No doubt it’s said with the best intentions, but it implies that you’ve been through the same things and have felt the same things. This can be interpreted as minimizing the other person's experience, and may give the impression that you just don’t understand, so there’s no point in talking further. You may say instead something along the lines of "I don’t know how it feels to be in your situation, but I love you and I’m here to support you."

It’s very hard to watch someone cry or show distress. This may be one of the toughest parts of being with someone who is dying. It’s common to feel helpless, and really, there’s nothing you can say to fix the situation and stop the tears. If your mom cries, this is the time to show your love and support. Hug her and hold her. Let her know you’re there for her. Crying and feeling sadness are very normal in the face of an advancing terminal illness. If your mom’s sadness becomes severe, it’s important to ask the health care team for help. Watch for signs that she can’t eat, or sleep, or loses interest in things that used to bring her pleasure.

Some people find that illness shatters their sense of meaning and purpose. If your mother considers herself religious, she may wish to maintain or renew her connection with her faith community and its practices as a way to re-build the sense that life is meaningful. Other ways to find meaning include focusing on whatever is good in the present moment. A visit from a close friend, for example, may provide meaning even in the midst of a difficult day.

For many people, relationships are central to their understanding of meaning and purpose. You might want to affirm the meaning you find in your relationship with your mother by:

  • reminiscing together;
  • talking about the way the illness is changing family life or relationships;
  • enjoying favourite activities, places, or rituals together;
  • openly expressing your love, affection, and gratitude;
  • working through treatment decisions and changes in roles and needs;
  • letting go of old hurts and resentments.

Ask your mother if she has specific goals or things she’d like to do. People often find that finishing some task or resolving an old conflict can bring peace. Ask if there’s any way you can help her.

Your mother also may have some thoughts about what kind of legacy she’s leaving. It’s well known that people benefit from believing they’ve passed on something from their lives that may have meaning to others. You may ask your mom if she has stories she wants to pass on to someone, or if she wants to share some family history or advice with children or grandchildren. You may feel awkward starting such a conversation, but you could be pleasantly surprised at what you learn. If you’ve had such conversations throughout your lives, then this may be a chance to reminisce.

Throughout this time, remember that you too need care and support. You can help your mom by taking good care of yourself. This includes taking time to do the things you enjoy. Obviously you want to help your mom cope with her advancing illness, but you can’t do this if you get ill or overcome by exhaustion. Consider talking about your feelings and concerns with someone that you trust. Recognize and accept that you can’t meet all your mother’s needs by yourself. Accept help from people who want to be involved.

There may be resources available to you and your family that can support you. For example, there may be a palliative care program or hospice palliative care association in your region. Such organizations are leaders in end-of-life care. They can offer help and point you to resources available to patients and families.