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How do I support a dying loved one?

What terminal patients need—and don’t need

Listen. Be mindful of the moment you are together, remaining present and engaged. Don’t worry about what you are going to say next.

Settle into silences. Illness, the effects of medication, or a topic’s emotional weight may slow mental processes. Silences give your loved one time to think, so don’t ramble on to fill in the blanks.

Show acceptance and respect. Refrain from judgment or unsolicited advice. And avoid saying “I know how you feel.” A common response is “You have no idea.” Allow the person to define his or her own feelings.

Be comfortable talking about death. Shying away when your loved one tries to speak about death and dying can make him or her feel more isolated. Remember that conversations about the subject can give you an opportunity to connect with the person more deeply.

Don’t overstay your welcome. People can fatigue easily, even after a few minutes.

Consider occupational therapy. Loss of independence can make dying people fearful, angry, and depressed. Occupational therapists can help minimize this loss. For example, a computer might be modified so that someone whose dexterity has been impaired can still type. Or someone who needs to conserve his or her energy might be coached to sit down while getting dressed or making a sandwich.

Know your limits. Pace yourself. Seek out your own support.

Janice Kishi Chow, BSOT95, is an occupational therapist at Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospice and Palliative Care Center in Palo Alto, California.

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