No One Has to Die Alone by Lani Leary is a book I read shortly after my aunt was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I really wanted to call and I picked up the phone and realized that I didn’t know what to say to her. What don’t I say? Should I be positive or realistic? Will she want visitors? What do I write on the card? What do I say to my cousin? I felt so vulnerable. I really didn’t know how to have such a delicate conversation.
I wonder if you will know how to handle this situation when the time comes. Maybe you already have.
Dr. Leary gets death and dying out of the closet and onto the dining room table.
She has worked for over 30 years as a psychotherapist. She’s a Chaplain in the intensive care unit at a hospital and a counselor in eight hospices across the United States. She’s a professor of Death Studies at George Mason University, and a researcher at the National Cancer Institute. Her career in this lifelong work was inspired by her own personal story of losing her mom at the age of 13.
No one talked to her about her mother’s illness. She didn’t see it coming. Her mom was ill and that’s all she knew. Then one day she walked into her mom’s bedroom and she was gone. Not being there for her mom and the absence of information haunted her for years.
She has supported thousands of people in the dying process and has been at the bedside of over 500 people who have died. What the dying are most afraid of isn’t dying; it is being emotionally abandoned. If you can say to your loved one we’ll do this together, they won’t be alone.
It is helpful to really to see that when all hope is gone there are still things we can hope for such as a pain-free death, personal relationships resolved, and a death with dignity.
She says the best way we can support our loved ones is by showing up in a peaceful state and just offering them our presence. Be a good listener. Take their lead. What do they want to talk about? Let them tell their stories.
I’m grateful that I was able to lean into supporting my Aunt Judy at the end of her life and be in that vulnerable place with her.
I have also gained a perspective that helps me cope with the reality of death and that my own aging parents will one day no longer be here. There are people on the other side who are waiting for us.
Losing a loved one is terribly painful. It’s really comforting to know how we can best show up to support them in the dying process.
No one has to die alone.
This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of Hometown News. For more articles from our May 2018 issue, pick up a print copy at a local retailer (find a list of locations here) or read our digital version.