Hollywood would have us believe that profound deathbed conversations occur just before the last breath is drawn. Not so! The last few weeks of a person’s life are often marked by extreme fatigue, long hours of sleep, and sometimes distracting levels of pain. Conversations require too much energy.
If someone you care about has been given a terminal diagnosis, it’s best to talk sooner rather than later. Typically, the older adult and their relatives want to have a conversation, but there’s worry that emotions will get overwhelming. And worry about how to start. Look for a time when stamina is good, pain is gone or at a minimum, and try an opening such as, “I was wondering if you had thoughts about …” Once past the initial discomfort, there is usually great relief and greater intimacy ensues.
As you prepare, ask yourself, “What do I need to say?” “What is it that I want out of communicating?” The most meaningful topics usually involve
- expressions of love. These can be verbal. But nonverbal gestures (loving gaze, holding hands, hugging, kissing) are also extremely powerful.
- spiritual or religious affirmations (as appropriate). Following your relative’s beliefs, it may be soothing to talk about the afterlife. You might share expectations of seeing each other again in the future.
- practical communications. Perhaps further discussion about wishes concerning where to die. Or arrangements, such as burial. Or signing legal paperwork.
- difficult relationship talk. This is the most challenging. And also the most meaningful. Again, keep the outcome in mind. If your intention is a positive resolution to unfinished business, focus on efforts to understand, accept, and forgive. Let go of accounting for every past hurt.
Even if it’s late in the process and is only a monologue, your loved one can still hear you. It’s worth the effort to verbally and nonverbally create positive closure.