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Talking with a Parent Who Is Dying

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Dr. Michelle Golland:What would you say to your mom or dad if you were told they would be dead in a matter of months? How would you spend your remaining time with them? Do you wonder what they would want from you at the end of their life? Are there things you would want to express to them before they passed away? As a mother, I sit here writing this with one part of my brain thinking, "What would I want from my kids if, say, they were in their 40s and I had just been given the news that I only had six months to live ...?"

elderly man

Would I want them to sit around and stare at me, hold my hand, tell me they love me, tell me they forgive me for the many mistakes I have made as a mom? Would I want them to know I was proud of them and was going to miss seeing them and touching them? Would I tell them stories about when they were little and lost their first teeth, or about how Asher used to pronounce licorice "rikalish" -- and how that still makes me laugh whenever I think about it? Would I want them to cry and hang on to me tight and tell me they don't want me to leave? Would I want to talk about my death, or would I want to just slip quietly away, believing that all of the things they or I had ever wanted to say had already been said?

You see, it isn't me as "parent" who is writing this, but me as "child." I am the child who is confused, scared and sad about the future loss of my father. I want to speak, but right now I feel oddly stuck and unable to find the words (if there even arethe right words to say to him). In a strange way, I want to protect him from my words, from my pain and fear -- as if seeing me cry will somehow hasten his death. As a psychologist who deals with grief and loss, I know that is crazy talk. But these are the thoughts of grief.

So how should I -- or you -- talk with a dying parent? First, there is no single correct way to do it. What will be said will be shaped by personal circumstance, including family culture and religious beliefs. The nature of your parent's illness and mental faculties will also impact what is discussed and shared between the two of you. It is best to introduce the topic of their health in a quiet, loving moment. You can say things such as:
• "I am so sorry you are not getting better."
• "I'm sad about what is happening to you."
• "I know that you are dying, and if it is OK, I want to talk about it with you."
• "If you ever want to talk about what is happening, I am OK with that."

Don't assume that your parent doesn't want to talk about his or her death. Most seriously ill people are more open to confronting these issues than their families are. Your parent's response to your gentle questions will help you gauge what you should say next, and how deep they would like the conversation to go. Let your ill parent take the lead, and simply listen to what they share. If they seem uncomfortable, that's OK -- do not pressure them to speak. It might be a good idea to wait a while, then raise the issue again later. This will allow them time to digest the fact that you are open to talking about death with them -- and the next time you bring it up, they may be more willing to share their thoughts with you.

It is important to remember that how people deal with strife and conflict can often be a strong indicator of how they will deal with death. If the person wasn't very open or emotional when they were healthy, they will most likely not change as they near death.

It can also be very helpful to let the person choose how they want to be remembered by the family. Often, the ill person's greatest wish is to not be forgotten. If that's the case, you can encourage your parent to do an oral history, or videotape them as they recount some of their fondest memories or greatest achievements. You may also want to help your parent write an "ethical will," which is not about the disposition of wealth or material items, but a statement by which your parent imparts his/her wisdom and values to you and your children. This is beneficial for the dying parent andfor all family members, too. It will enable them to feel connected and bound to the person with a shared identity that goes beyond the dying parent's life.

While your parent is still alive, share what you deeply wish to express. Tell them that you love them and will miss them. Share with them personal memories of your time together. Acknowledge any regrets you feel the need to voice. This challenging time can be a blessing for the entire family. Seek out the comfort of friends, and turn toward other family members. Having honest discussions about your mutual grief, love and appreciation can deepen and enrich all of your lives.

I have yet to have "the discussion" with my own father. In many ways, I feel as if I have had it in my heart a hundred times. As uncomfortable as it may be, I know it is a conversation I want and need to have with the amazing, generous, positive, hardworking man who gave me life.

If you are also coping with a dying parent, I wish for you to have the strength and courage to do the same.


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