The most essential thing in life is to establish an unafraid, heartfelt communication with others, and it is never more important than with a dying person.
Often the dying person feels reserved and insecure, and is not sure of your intentions when you first visit. So don’t feel anything extraordinary is supposed to happen, just be natural and relaxed, be yourself. Often dying people do not say what they want or mean, and the people close to them do not know what to say or do. It is hard to find out what they might be trying to say, or even what they might be hiding. Sometimes not even they know. So the first essential thing is to relax any tension in the atmosphere in whatever way comes most easily and naturally.
Once trust and confidence have been established, the atmosphere becomes relaxed and this will allow the dying person to bring up the things he or she really wants to talk about. Encourage the person warmly to feel as free as possible to express thoughts, fears, and emotions about dying and death. This honest and unshrinking baring of emotion is central to any possible transformation – of coming to terms with life or dying a good death – and you must allow the person complete freedom, and give your full permission to say whatever he or she wants.
When the dying person is finally communicating his or her most private feelings, do not interrupt, deny, or diminish what the person is saying. The terminally ill or dying are in the most vulnerable situation of their lives, and you will need all your skill and resources of sensitivity, and warmth, and loving compassion to enable them to reveal themselves. Learn to listen, and learn to receive in silence: an open, calm silence that makes the other person feel accepted. Be as relaxed as you can, be at ease,; sit there with your dying friend or relative as if you had nothing more important or enjoyable to do.
In all grave situation of life, two things are most useful: a common-sense approach and a sense of humour. Humour has a marvellous way of lightening the atmosphere, helping to put the process of dying in its true and universal perspective, and breaking the over-seriousness and intensity of the situation. Use humour, then, skilfully and as gently as possible.
It is essential not to take anything too personally. When you least expect it, dying people can make you the target of all their anger and blame. As Elisabeth Kubler-Ross say, anger and blame can “be displaced in all directions, and projected onto the environment at times almost at random.” Do not imagine that this rage is really aimed at you; realizing what fear and grief it springs from will stop you from reacting to it in ways that might damage your relationship.
Sometime you may be tempted to preach to the dying, or to give them your own spiritual formula. Avoid this temptation absolutely, especially when you suspect that it is not what the dying person wants! No one wishes to be “rescued” with someone else’s beliefs. Remember your task is not to convert anyone to anything, but to help the person in front of you get in touch with his or her own strength, confidence, faith, and spirituality, whatever that might be.
Do not expect too much from yourself, or expect your help to produce miraculous results in the dying person or “save” them. You will only be disappointed. People will die as they have lived, as themselves. For real communication to be established, you must make a determined effort to see the person in terms of his or her own life, character, background, and history, and to accept the person unreservedly. Also don’t be distressed if your help seems to be having very little effect and the dying person does not respond. We can not know the deeper effect of our care.
The dying person in front of you and think of that person as just like you, with the same needs, the same fundamental desire to be happy and avoid suffering, the same loneliness, the same fear of the unknown, the same secret areas of sadness, the same half-acknowledged feelings of helplessness. What the dying person wants is what you would most want: to be really loved and accepted.