Helping people to die

It may seem strange that you can think of death as something that you ‘do well’, but there are few things that we would want more for ourselves or our loved ones, other than a good death.

Some reflections on a good death

‘We do have some idea…of the factors that may contribute to a ‘good death’ and those that may contribute to a ‘bad death’ … It has been argued that those things that contribute to a bad death include a lack of honest communication, difficulties in accurate prognostication, lack of control (autonomy) and a lack of planning of end-life care’
Edmonds, P & Rogers, A 2003, ” ‘If only someone had told me…’ – A review of the care of patients dying in hospital”, Clinical Medicine, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 149 – 152.

‘The things that are reported as contributing to a good death include patient control (autonomy) over a series of factors relating to terminal care, including pain and symptom control, place of death and the presence of others at the time of death; access to information, expertise, hospice care and spiritual and emotional support; the sense of achieving a sense of completion or closure of one’s life; and a chance to say goodbye’
Steinhauser, Clipp et al, 2000: In Search of a Good Death: Observations of Patients, Families, and Providers, Annals of Internal Medicine.

If someone you know is dying, ask what their needs are. These will be unique to them and the circumstances in which they are living their dying experience. For example, someone may want to die at home with close family around them whilst another person may wish to die in a palliative care setting. Their needs also may take into consideration the wellbeing of family and friends. Some may need more solace than others, and others, more company than being alone. The importance for those who are present is to listen to what the needs are of the person dying, respect those needs and the choices they make. This may mean that they want to die at home. Providing a support circle will be important to them, this might include family, friends, carers, medical professionals and a chaplain or priest. The support circle might change over time, however accompaniment, rather than isolation in their experience can help them to prepare, and their burden and worries be carried.

The most important thing is for them to be with the people they know and love who can bring consolation to their journey. Alan D. Wolfelt is an author, teacher and grief counsellor, and is responsible for coining the term `Companioning’. Wolfelt provides guiding principles to describe this kind of relationship. When we understand these tenets, we better understand what authentic companioning requires of us.

Wolfelt’s Tenets

  1. Companioning is about being present to another person’s pain; it is not about taking away the pain.
  2. Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.
  3. Companioning is about honouring the spirit; it is not about focusing on the intellect.
  4. Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analysing with the head.
  5. Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggles of others; it is not about judging or directing these struggles.
  6. Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading or being led.
  7. Companioning means discovering the gifts of sacred silence; it does not mean filling up every moment with words.
  8. Companioning is about being still; it is not about frantic movement forward.
  9. Companioning is about respecting disorder and confusion; it is not about imposing order and logic.
  10. Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them.
  11. Companioning is about curiosity; it is not about expertise.

As Ron Rolheiser astutely observes:

‘The challenge for all of us now, of course, is on the other side of this equation, namely, the challenge to live in such a way that peace will be our final farewell gift to our families, our loved ones, our faith community, and our world. How do we do that? How do we leave the gift of peace to those we leave behind?

Peace, as we know, is a whole lot more than the simple absence of war and strife. Peace is constituted by two things: harmony and completeness. To be at peace something has to have an inner consistency so that all of its movements are in harmony with each other and it must also have a completeness so that it is not still aching for something it is missing. Peace is the opposite of internal discord or of longing for something we lack. When we are not at peace it is because we are experiencing chaos or sensing some unfinished business inside us. 

Positively then, what constitutes peace? When Jesus promises peace as his farewell gift, he identifies it with the Holy Spirit; and, as we know, that is the spirit of charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity.

How do we leave these behind when we leave? Well, death is no different than life. When some people leave anything, a job, a marriage, a family, or a community, they leave chaos behind, a legacy of disharmony, unfinished business, anger, bitterness, jealousy, and division. Their memory is felt always as a cold pain. They are not missed, even as their memory haunts. Some people on the other hand leave behind a legacy of harmony and completeness, a spirit of understanding, compassion, affirmation, and unity. These people are missed but the ache is a warm one, a nurturing one, one of happy memory.

Going away in death has exactly the same dynamic. By the way we live and die we will leave behind either a spirit that perennially haunts the peace of our loved ones, or we will leave behind a spirit that brings a warmth every time our memory is evoked.’

Catholics believe that death is the moment to witness to life and to witness to trust in God.

Ron Rolheiser offers the following:

‘Many of us, I am sure, have had persons close to us die with whom we had unfinished business. Perhaps we hurt them, or they hurt us and it was never reconciled, or we should have given them more of ourselves but were too preoccupied with our own lives to reach out at the time, or we hated them and should have made some gestures of reconciliation and we didn’t and now it’s too late! Death has separated them from us and what was left unfinished now lies, irrevocably, unfinished and we live with guilt and keep saying: “If only, if only…”

These “if onlys” will disappear if we take seriously the Christian doctrine concerning the communion of saints. This doctrine, so central to our faith that it is one of the doctrines enshrined in the creed, asks us to believe that we are still in vital communion with those who have died, indeed in privileged communication.

To believe in the communion of saints is to believe that those who have died are still linked to us in such a way that we can continue to communicate, to talk, with them. It is to believe that our relationship with them can continue to grow and that the reconciliation which, for many human reasons, was not possible in this life can now take place.’

For further information on supporting a loved one who is dying please visit…..

Additional resources

Living with the knowledge that death is close at hand can take a huge emotional toll. These resources will help you through the experience of facing death.