Having a loved one die is difficult enough without holding onto the myths that surround it.
“Because there’s so much we don’t know about the dying process and what happens after death, dozens of myths and misconceptions have developed over the ages,” according to Caring.com. “Many of these incorrect beliefs can add unnecessary guilt, fear, or stress.”
One extremely common belief is that if you’re not there when a loved one dies, you’ve failed them. The fact is, the timing of death is a mystery. Some people seem to hang on until you’re there or wait until they’re alone.
Another common myth is that you have to do everything you can do to prevent death, that is throw every available technique or technology at them. If you don’t, again you’ve failed them.
Even with all the advanced treatments and techniques available, treatments for terminally ill patients are designed to either improve quality of life or delay death, prolonging life rather than preventing it. Some advanced treatments simply might not by right for a dying person.
If you’re dealing with a dying loved one do you feel they have to keep eating and drinking or they’ll die of dehydration or starvation? Everyone is different. “People don’t die because they aren’t eating; they don’t eat because they’re dying,” writes Caring.com.
Other common myths are that people should die only in hospitals and be conscious right up until the time they pass. That’s more dramatic than what happens most of the time. People die at home every day and, in fact, that’s where many want to be when they die. Slipping into a coma before dying is a natural way for someone to die as they get closer to the final moment.
It's not too late to say goodbye if someone is in a coma, writes Tani Bahti, RN, founder and director of the end of life education organization Passages.
“Your loved ones can hear and benefit from touch until their final breath,” Bahti writes. “Now is the time for loving actions such as reminiscing, holding tenderly, stroking their face, telling them what they meant to you, letting them know you will be sad but OK when they die, and saying good-bye.”
Some people believe that dying is painful, but pain is not an expected part of the dying process. If there is pain, medication prescribed by a doctor can suppress it, according to Bahti.
Perhaps you believe that if a dying person is allowed to remain in bed or sleep all the time, they are giving up and will die sooner. Bahti says energy diminishes during a fatal illness. Pushing people past their natural limit won’t help prolong their lives and could actually put more strain on them.
Don't cry in front of someone who is dying, Chris Flynn writes. “The belief is that crying in front of the dying person is selfish and will make them feel guilty, as though they have no right to be dying or they should be able to stop it from occurring.”
But some final moments or goodbyes are emotional and complicated. Crying can well be part of that process. To hold back is unnatural.
Another common myth is that children should be kept away from dying loved ones. If you remember stories you were told about pets that died and “went away,” you can imagine what it’s like for kids whose parents believe they are protecting them from something that will have to be explained eventually, such as when they see a casket.
“Rather than telling children their loved one is dying or has died, it’s often better for them to see what’s happening with their own eyes,” Flynn writes. “Children have vivid imaginations, and if they don't see for themselves what happened to their deceased family member, they’ll often conjure up gruesome or terrifying images of what happened to the person.”
All in all, dying is a somewhat taboo subject in our society. That reticence to talk about it plainly and know that facts from the dying person’s perspective can make the experience worse.
“When people don’t understand the wisdom of the body, they will make decisions based on fear, lack of information or misinformation,” according to Bahti. “Knowing and honoring the body’s changes will lead to the best possible choices and care for our loved ones.”
September 27, 2016
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA