Death is the great unknown. The world’s religions all address the issue of death in different ways. Even with these perspectives and help, we quickly realize that we fear the reality of death. When a loved one is diagnosed with an incurable disease, we are confronted with many unknowns. What is my loved one experiencing? How will my life be without him or her? Is he or she ready to die? Questions swarm our minds and we suddenly feel helpless, and that is frightening for anyone.
This can create strange behavior. A calm person can suddenly rage against the doctors and their diagnosis. A strong person who is usually the strong one can suddenly become pathetic. The sudden realization of the reality of death has the ability to shake us to the core. Strange emotional reactions are normal and even common. Uncharacteristic behavior is not only limited to the one diagnosed with the news of impending death. The close family and friends can also experience great shock and confusion. The most difficult part of handling these uncharacteristic behaviors is that they affect our relationships in time of stress.
Normal family relationships can become strained and tense. Deflecting emotions we do not know how to handle unto other people is a normal human response.
These emotional responses are part of the process known as anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is the same as normal grief, the hard part is that the person we are grieving is still alive. We usually do not think we are grieving yet, and this makes the emotional experience we have more confusing. Understanding that the grieving process can start for both the person who is sick as well as the close family and friends will help in handling this process. Explaining the reality of anticipatory grief, and the impact it has on people will also help smooth over strained relationships after emotional outbursts. It is important to realize and remind ourselves that grieving places us on an emotional roller coaster and we should be extra compassionate and forgiving with each other, especially when still coping with the shock.
The depth of the emotional impact will depend on how close we are to the person. The closer we are to the person the harder it will be to manage our emotions. This is normal and should be expected. The emotional impact of realizing that someone we love could die make it hard to discover what we are suppose to do. How should we act? What should we say?
What you should do will depend on the context and the person who is suffering the terminal illness. Sometimes humor can be a powerful way for a family and friends to cope with the grief. Other times making jokes can seem insensitive. The best is to try to take your cues from the person who is dying. If they are making a few jokes, laugh with them and join in. They need to laugh. But whatever you do, always be available and rather say less than more. Hold their hand and do not avoid eye contact. Some people’s worst fear is dying alone. Also try to see this period as a time grace. Although a sickbed can be a horrendous experience, it does offer the family and friends an opportunity to bond, reconnect and focus on creating new and lasting memories. The sad reality is that every person has to die some time and we have little control over how we die. Focus on the time you do have available with your beloved.
The shocking news that a loved one is about to die shake us to the core. We usually do not know how to handle this, but there is not a correct way. The best is to be there for the person, to be honest about your feelings and to understand the pressure can wreck havoc on the personal relationships. Be forgiving and understanding with one another.
Read more about grief in my book: From Grief to Peace - Mourning Your Loss: The Healthy Way to Survive the Death of a Loved One