How to Prepare for Loss of a Loved One

Oct 11, 2013

Many of my friends are losing parents in their 90’s.  It seems like every time I turn around, I’m heading to a funeral.  A few of those funerals have even been for much younger spouses.  If you’re someone who is dealing with end-of-life transitions, this post is intended to ease your fear.

I decided long ago that funerals should be a time of celebration.  I came from a family of Roman Catholics.  Wailing at funerals was my grandmother’s specialty.  For most of my life, I thought that end-of-life transitions and funerals were supposed to be morbid and depressing.  Well into the planning stages of my own son’s memorial, however, I realized the importance of celebration. Frankly, I couldn’t handle the drama.  I simply wanted to bask in the joy of loving Michael. Since that time, I’ve  determined that the agony of loss, that internal wailing, is really for ourselves.  We weep for that void in our lives.  However, if we’re focusing on the person whom we love rather than our own pain, it’s really much easier to prepare for the loss.

Here’s a few things to consider:

1.  Respect the Process:  Loss comes in many forms, and each person handles it differently.  It’s important to do that which brings you comfort.  In the case of a sudden, tragic loss, it can be difficult to move to a place of celebration.  For many of us, however, loss is a dance of letting go.  I learned a great deal through our son’s transition.  When we accept death as a sacred process, we have the ability to handle the transition with the grace and dignity that our loved one deserves.  By sacred I mean, God is in the house.  He’s got this thing called death.  May sound cliche, but He’s got your loved one in the palm of His hands.  You don’t have the power to reverse the process; the game is afoot. You’re out of the picture; you have no control.  Embrace the privilege of being there as your loved one transitions.

2.  Be Prepared to Be Unprepared:  It’s important to note that such transitions also take many forms.  The slower process of transition might begin with the onset of Alzheimer’s or a stroke.  Any significant change in health and behavior might signal the beginning of the end.  However, a slow transition can escalate to crisis in a matter of seconds.  No matter how prepared we think we are, no one is ever equipped  for those final moments.  Death shocks our system, knocks us stupid.  Be prepared to handle situations as they arise.  It’s not your job to fix the person.  It’s your job to balance their care with the inevitability of what lies ahead.

3.  Gather the Information:  You need to know the facts of what you are dealing with, and it’s not always easy to get them straight when someone you love is critically ill.  Meet with other family members or people who can apprise you of the reality of the situation.  When my son Michael was dying, we obviously fought hard to get him the best possible medical care.  There came a point in time, however, when we realized  that we were prolonging the inevitable by forcing nutrition and hydration.  I prayed for wisdom and discernment during this time.  I sought counsel from a close friend and advocate for the disabled.  Dr. Tom Buckley helped me understand the reality of what we were facing. We were not living some miracle in a Jimmy Stewart movie; Michael would not regain consciousness.  When I stopped focusing on the fear of losing him and started focusing on what was best for Michael, it was easier to make those hard decisions.

 4.  Honor the Sacred:  In these moments of transition, I’ve noted something interesting: The family often tries to conduct business as usual.  For example, if the person is still at home, the television might be blaring.  Relatives may be coming and going.  The house abounds with the noise of life almost as if we’re trying to slam the door in death’s face.  I’ve often wondered what the person-in-transition experiences in the midst of all this chatter.  I found it helpful to honor these sacred moments by trying to maintain some level of tranquility.  Your loved one is half way between this life and whatever is next.  In my case, I believe in an infinite God; it’s the good news.  Just imagine the majesty of being in that place between the alpha and the omega, free of all pain, sorrow, and heartache.  I didn’t want my son transitioning amongst chaos, noise, confusion, or even my own hysteria.  This moment where life ends and begins anew is a sacred time.  Honor and respect that sacredness.  Consider the power of silence, prayer, candles, soft music, whispers of love and affection.  Think of the last words you want your loved one to hear.  Love them enough to let go and prepare to celebrate a life well-lived.

Life is rarely easy; death even harder.  However, death is a part of life that we can learn to embrace.  When we do so, we are better equipped to experience joy.  We can begin again.

Question:  If you’ve lived through this type of loss, what have you done to prepare?  How has it given you comfort? 

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