What to Say to an Elderly Parent who is Dying?

There has been quite a surge of search terms relating to ‘losing elderly parents’ over the last few weeks and I’m more than conscious that many grown-up children may well be ‘going home’ for Christmas to visit parents who are close to death.

A question that someone wrote that brought him/her to this blog was: What to say to an elderly parent who is dying?’ 

I’ve been thinking a good deal about this over the last day or two and from my reading of the literature, as well as from personal experience, it would seem best to take one’s lead from the parent who is dying.

There is quite a large literature about ‘awareness contexts’ in relation to dying ~ a phrase coined by Anselm Strauss and Barney Glaser in 1965. I was fortunate to study under Anselm Strauss in the University of California in San Francisco and I was very struck by the complexities which he identified in relation to interaction with people who are dying. For example, some people may know they are dying and be happy to talk about it while others may know they are dying but want to carry on as if  death was not on their agenda. There are lots of different permutations.

Much more recently, I attended a workshop given by Kenneth Doka, who has written extensively about death and dying. He made the point, that resonated very strongly with my own personal experience, that people who are dying can shift from wanting, to not wanting, to talk about their mortality. These changes can occur even within a single conversation.

So overall, I think that we have to respect the wishes of the parent who is dying . It is important to: 1. Seek clarification from the medical team if the elderly person has been told their prognosis; 2. Listen carefully to what the elderly person has to say and be receptive to cues that they wish to talk/or not talk about dying; 3. Be cognisant that everyone is different in how they deal with dying. For example, some people may find it easier to talk to a stranger than to a loved one while others may want to confide only in loved ones; and others may not wish to talk about dying to anyone at any stage.

Arguably, it is easier if there is openness all round but I think that such openness may be more the exception than the norm.

Author: socialbridge

I am a sociologist and writer from Ireland. I have worked as a social researcher for 30 years and have had a lifelong passion for writing. My main research interests relate to health care and I love to write both non-fiction and poetry.

3 thoughts on “What to Say to an Elderly Parent who is Dying?”

  1. Your ideas resonate with my own experiences. In helping my own parents to pass, I eventually learned that being fully present and listening, I mean deep listening for the message beyond the surface of the words, was absolutely essential. To serve them as their son, I had to find a way to be with them in a manner that made them feel I was completely there for them.

    In behind all this, of course, were my own insecurities and emotional turbulence. I experienced strange and unfamiliar feelings that often attempted to hijack my common sense. Part of me was unbearably selfish and wanted to make their deaths about me. This was a very uncomfortable realization about me, and I was so offended by it that I tried to set out on a different path. That path, for me, is captured by the word “presence.” Of course, I still faltered, but at least my intentions remained stable.

    As a result, I was able to “be” with my parents in a deeper more profound way. I was not mired in self-pity as much (at least, not in front of them). Caring for an elderly parent who is dying is the most profound challenge to my identity I have ever experienced.

    I really agree with the idea of openness you describe here. And for me, that openness required a new level of courage. I can recall sitting close to mom and dad during those final days, and just trying to be fully present with them in that moment.

    Sometimes we talked about the end of life, other times we revisited cherished family memories. And other times, we could only talk about current events in the news as a necessary distraction. I would bring food to them from favourite restaurants, and that would often spark memories of good times past. Sometimes we just sat together, with the television on, and neither of us paying any attention to it whatsoever.

    In the end, all I wanted them to know is that I was completely there for them in whatever form that needed to take. Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds – but I tried to be that for them.

    Thank you for this entry Jean. It was a very timely read for me about a struggle that we all face in life.

  2. Brian, many thanks for writing and for sharing your personal experiences.
    I think your point about our parent’s deaths being about them, and not us grown-up children, is very well made. But isn’t is amazing how much ‘the child’ in us tends can emerge very forcefully when our parents are dying? It’s like the very people who were always there to offer security and unconditional love at the toughest times are now needing more from us than ever before and just at a time when we feel least able to give it. Having said all that, I must say that both my parents, in their own unique ways, managed somehow to maintain that parental ‘givingness’ right to the end.

    I really like your reference to ‘presence’ and that notion of trying to ‘be’ with your parents in the very fullest sense of the word. I understand the point you are making but was a little startled to see ‘presence’ being used in that context as it is the word that I have found most meaningful in trying to understand the ongoing feelings of connectedness over the years since my parents died.

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