Seven Common Fears of Dying (and How to Address Them)

Seven Common Fears of Dying (and How to Address Them)

Quite frankly, the prospect of dying can be frightening to many of us-for some, death might even be the most daunting thing we’ll ever face. As we take our final walks, our physical and emotional realities rapidly change, and we might wonder or worry about what awaits us on the other side. For these reasons, says writer Donna Authers, one of the greatest services a caregiver can offer is identifying the fears a dying loved one has and making sure that they are alleviated.

“No matter how strong a support network your loved one might enjoy, her inner fears about dying may linger, and it’s important to make sure that they don’t remain unspoken,” urges Authers, herself an experienced caregiver and author of the book A Sacred Walk: Dispelling the Fear of Death and Caring for the Dying (A&A Publishing, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-6152458-5-0, $15.95). “By being sensitive to the desires and fears of the person for whom you’re caring, you can help ensure that your loved one is not unnecessarily frightened or burdened by stress and anxiety, and that she can die in peace.”

The most effective caregivers are the ones who have faced the reality of their own mortality and understand that fear has many faces. Ideally, family members and close friends should acquaint themselves with the most common fears their loved one is likely to have so they can recognize and address them. Caregivers should also learn what to expect as death draws near-the behavioral and physical changes that typically occur from month to month after a terminal diagnosis, up to the very moment of death. Knowing what to expect and what to do when the time comes will help you prepare and focus on the job at hand-addressing the fears your loved one has.

“Talking about your loved one’s impending death and helping him confront his fears about it are difficult, emotional tasks,” Authers warns. “You might wish to sweep these issues under the rug because they’re so painful, but resist that temptation. Easing the fears of a dying loved one, as well as the fears of family and friends, will ultimately bring the fullest measure of peace and closure.”
These following seven fears originally appeared in Hospice: A Caring Community, by Theodore Koff II, and they are also insights that Authers has learned directly from hospice workers, friends, and family members she has visited during the last months of their lives.

1. The Fear: The Process of Dying

* Will death be painful?
* How will I get through this?

How to Dispel It
Make sure your loved one knows that he will most likely experience little or no pain unless he chooses to. Pain management is a service that hospice facilities are especially strong in providing. Staff members are trained to interpret what patients need using verbal and nonverbal cues, and they will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each option with patients and their families.

2. The Fear: Loss of Control

* Must I give up independence?
* Can I cope with being dependent on others?

How to Dispel It
Encourage your loved one to live a normal lifestyle for as long as possible-a life-threatening or terminal diagnosis does not change who the patient fundamentally is. When it becomes clear that the patient will need to accept care from others, arrange for her to meet and get to know her caregivers in advance, especially if medical professionals are involved. When the time comes, this will give her the sense of being cared for by acquaintances, even friends-not strangers.

3. The Fear: Loss of Loved Ones

* What is going to happen to them?
* How will they manage without me?

How to Dispel It
Only the patient’s loved ones can alleviate this fear. Be willing to frankly discuss with your loved one what will happen to everyone when he dies, and do everything you can to reassure him that you will be okay. If children or dependent adults are involved, help your loved one formulate a detailed plan for their future care-a true gift of peace.

4. The Fear: Others’ Reactions

* What if I see fear in the eyes of others?
* How do I respond to differences in their nonverbal communication and body language?

How to Dispel It
It’s natural to feel fear and sadness when faced with the loss of a loved one, but after the initial shock has worn off, try to behave normally. Remember, it’s not about you. Make sure that all caregivers are getting enough sleep, exercise, and emotional support, since the strain of not receiving them is evident in both appearance and demeanor. Lastly, ensure that all caregivers and visitors are told in advance of any physical changes that may have taken place in your loved one. This way, displays of shock or fear can be avoided.

5. The Fear: Isolation

* What if my visits with healthcare professionals and friends decrease?
* Will I die alone?

How to Dispel It
Quite simply, make sure that regular visits with close friends, family members, and other volunteers are scheduled, especially if medical appointments have decreased because a cure is no longer possible. If you don’t live near your loved one or cannot commit to frequent visits for other reasons, consider taking advantage of hospice care, private nurses, paid companions, or church ministries. End-of-life care and socialization from these resources can dramatically increase the quality of life for your loved one.

6. The Fear: The Unknown

* What can I expect?
* Will there be life after death?

How to Dispel It
Everyone, even the greatest self-professed skeptic, wonders what will happen to them after they take their last breaths. Addressing this concern has physical, emotional, and spiritual implications. Even if your loved one is not “religious,” consider asking a priest, rabbi, minister, pastor, etc. to speak with the patient. Outside resources such as these can present a gift of deep peace, regardless of past doubts and skepticism.

7. The Fear: That Life Will Have Been Meaningless

* What did I accomplish during my life?
* Did I have a positive impact on the world?

How to Dispel It
People who are leaving this world need to hear that they are valued and that they won’t be forgotten. Don’t miss the chance to tell the patient how much you love her, and remind her of all the good she brought to your life. Reassure her that her life had purpose and meaning, and encourage others to do the same, either in person or through cards and letters. Also, take time to go through photo albums, share memories, and absorb life lessons from your loved one.

It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown and of circumstances that are beyond your control, but try not to let those fears rob you and your loved one of your last weeks and days together.
“If we are ready, willing, and able to help someone enjoy life up to the end and be with her as she prepares to leave this world, we in turn can learn so much about how to live,” promises Authers. “Providing any form of emotional, spiritual, or practical support will result in receiving so much more than you give. By making your loved one’s final days relaxing, affirming, and reassuring, you will have no regrets, and you will have created priceless memories to cherish. Above all, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you provided a service of inestimable, eternal value.”

About the Author:
Donna Authers lived in fear of death from childhood well into her adult life, the result of an unusual number of tragic losses in her family. That fear was finally broken by her grandmother’s faith, which marked the beginning of Donna’s calling as a caregiver to others as they, or their loved ones, prepared to leave this world. Donna has a passion for applying her natural caregiving skills to help bring hope and healing to hurting people. These skills have been honed through use and her leadership in Stephen Ministry and Community Bible Study. She is a gifted teacher and, as such, has trained and mentored many other volunteers to develop their own caregiving skills to serve others. Over the years, Donna has been regularly invited into the homes of many families learning to accept death and has accompanied them throughout the grieving process. She has worked closely with hospice organizations, counselors, social workers, and clergy, and has been an advocate for others dealing with the medical system and government agencies. Donna graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. After meeting her husband, Roger, on a business trip to Paris in 1991, she retired in order to volunteer full-time, and has never looked back.
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About the Book:
A Sacred Walk: Dispelling the Fear of Death and Caring for the Dying (A&A Publishing, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-615-24585-0, $15.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

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