Showing Up for Death

Watching someone die is hard. Sometimes we know we are watching someone die—perhaps they are in hospice or a medical professional has estimated how much time they have left. Other times, we may notice a slowing down and have a creeping realization that this person is moving toward death.

I watched my husband die for 53 weeks after his stroke. He faded very slowly, in fits and starts, so that it was possible for me to convince myself that he wasn’t actually dying at all. He maintained his vigor and bravado right up until the end, even when he had stopped eating. His death was a shock to me, although I knew that from the moment of his stroke, I was “walking him home,” an expression spiritual teacher Ram Dass used to express the shared experience of embracing the inevitability of death.

As painful as it is to watch, I think being with someone in their final months, weeks, days, or moments is an honor and even a responsibility. As much as we may want to turn away, I think we need to bear witness to death. Death is a totally natural part of life. Witnessing it normalizes it. Showing up for a person who is dying is one way to show respect for life itself. A person who is dying isn’t dead yet and many of their needs are like those of the rest of us: they need to be seen, heard, and acknowledged; they need to feel loved and valued; they need to feel remembered; they need to not feel abandoned.

I think one reason people avoid showing up for death is that they don’t know what to do. People who are dying are often less able to participate in conversations. We may wonder what to talk about with a dying person or how to engage them. We may feel pressure to keep a conversation going but feel nervous about which topics are “safe.” Here’s what I learned in my husband’s last year: it is easy to meet the needs of people who are dying if we focus on those needs rather than our fears.

Every one of those needs can be met by simply showing up. What is the most basic way of letting someone know they are seen and heard? Being there in person or on the phone with them. What is the most basic way of showing love? Making the effort to be there in person or on the phone. How can you let someone know you remember them? Be there. How do you let someone know they haven’t been abandoned? Sit with them.

Simply sitting in silence with someone who is dying is completely ok. I spent hours and hours in silence with my dying husband, simply holding his hand. When he had lost consciousness and was being kept alive by a ventilator, I told him over and over, “I’m right here.” In other words, I was not a brilliant conversationalist. Cake’s post on watching a loved one die emphasizes that it’s your presence that matters, not the conversation, and that silence is completely ok.

If you’re interested in learning more about dying and showing up for dying, I highly recommend Sallie Tisdale’s book, Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them). Tisdale is a Buddhist and brings Buddhism’s characteristic lack of sentimentality about death to the subject. (In my introduction to Zen Buddhism in 1997, the teacher led with, “Let’s face it: we’re all on a one-way trip to the boneyard.”) She offers concrete suggestions for what to say and not say. She recommends being kind to yourself, cutting yourself slack when you don’t show up exactly as you wish you had.

Perhaps the advice of Tisdale’s that was the hardest for me was to let the dying person talk about death and dying. My husband wanted to talk about it, but I was afraid that if I acknowledged he was dying, he would slip away faster. If I could change one thing about how I showed up for his death, it would be to not change the subject or dismiss his worries when he wanted to talk about dying. All I had to do was listen.

And now, as Tisdale advises, I need to cut myself a little slack.