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How to Say Goodbye When Someone You Love Is Dying

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I enjoy giving ideas to people who struggle to come up with the right words for difficult situations.

A treasured (last) picture of my father and me in October 2011

A treasured (last) picture of my father and me in October 2011

How to Say Bye to Someone You Love

I am writing this piece in honor of my father, who passed away on January 20, 2012. In fact, making time for writing was a promise which I made to my father (and really to myself) shortly before his passing.

While standing by his bedside at Stanford Hospital, I vividly recall saying to him that his story would someday be found in print. And that it would be my mission to turn this promise into a reality.

Writing as a Vehicle to Say Goodbye

Why this drive to write, you might ask? I can only explain it as a means of taking ownership and control when life has been filled with uncertainties; or, doing something which would allow me to carry on his name when all we feel is a tremendous void; or, trying to make him proud in the face of ever-mounting challenges, both physical and emotional; and, letting him know that he will be both missed and remembered for many generations to follow.

I have been receiving encouragement from family and friends to write for many years. They had been the recipients of my thank you notes, holiday letters, or followers of my blog to know that writing was not just a passing interest of mine. But as is the case with most passions (rather than our responsibilities) in life, it is difficult to find the time to make them a priority. Often, it is only after a critical event that we are motivated to make a change.

Writing is widely recognized as a therapeutic outlet for individuals who are faced with challenges in life. Or at least, so I was told. I do find it is a wonderful opportunity to process what unravels before me, to notice the little moments that mean so much more, and to put meaning behind circumstances that are often too hard to understand at first glance.

How Prepared Are You to Say Goodbye?

My father passed away at 5 pm on a Friday. When I turn back the clock to recall all the moments leading up to this difficult goodbye, there are two days that stand out from the rest. One was the preceding Tuesday, and the other was Friday itself, the last day of his life.

On Tuesday night, we received a call from the hospital asking us to come back immediately. My dad's health had taken a turn for the worst, and he had communicated to the medical team that he neither wanted any further life-saving procedures to be performed nor be resuscitated or put on life support. Translation: he was ready to go.

Our reaction when he (very matter-of-factly) restated these same wishes in our presence was foremost one of disbelief and disappointment—followed closely by fear and sadness. As a family, we had fought too long and too hard to give up so quickly and easily. Our hearts remained filled with hope that this, too, would just be a bump in the road, and before long, we would be celebrating another miracle recovery. We were clearly not prepared, willing, or ready to say goodbye.

By Friday, my father's health had deteriorated to a state which made it impossible for the doctors to help any further. We had run out of choices (definitely a first for us) and needed to face reality.

And most importantly, in the presence of my father, who was clearly struggling to hold on to life, we suddenly understood that saying goodbye was the only logical choice. The time had come to release him, and it was important to do so with respect and dignity.

Expected Versus Unexpected Loss—Is There Really a Difference?

In my father's case, he had survived many complicated medical procedures and, as a result, had also been pushed to the edge of an emotional battle. He fought bravely even when he was too weak to walk, and as a family, we persisted against all odds. But to make a very long story short, his death was not unexpected given his numerous and long-standing health struggles.

But was his death really something we should have expected? I would like to believe that no matter when the time comes, one is never prepared to let someone we love go.

That moment is not only about the patient but also about the people who surround him. It is about resolving the struggle at hand while accepting the challenge to move on without your loved one. And, it is about granting peace in exchange for a deep feeling of loss.

The Time Is Here to Say Goodbye

What makes logical sense does not always equate to what makes emotional sense. Although we were convinced that we had done all we could to save my father, we could not envision life without him.

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Although we knew we had an outstanding medical team at our side, we wondered if there was anything else we should have done or could have done differently. Although we were exhausted after years of caring for him, we had strength reserved to continue our fight. These were all signs, I believe now, that we were not equipped emotionally to say goodbye.

As far as my father was concerned, his life had come full circle. He knew he had physically reached his end, and he was emotionally prepared for the next step. He understood death as part of the cycle of life, accepted the reality that his time had come, and stated that he was ready to go.

I like to believe that this was my father's gift to us. Suddenly his 'matter-of-factness' a few days earlier provided us with the strength to begin with our final goodbyes. There is something quite beautiful and peaceful about knowing that by granting death, the patient's wish was in fact fulfilled.

Top 10 Tips for Saying Goodbye to a Loved One

Ready or not, death comes when it decides it is time. To that end, the following are some useful tips on how to properly say goodbye and find closure when a loved one is dying.

1. Know when to call on others for help.

My mother, in particular, is the epitome of strength. She was at my father's side relentlessly for many years and endured many difficult situations. However, when the final hours draw closer, it is invaluable to have extra hands at your side. I think you will find that friends are very eager to help. And, there is definitely strength in numbers.

2. Listen to your loved one.

Along with the advice of your trusted medical staff, listen closely to the wishes of your loved one. In my father's case, accepting death was not a hastened choice but rather a decision he had clearly contemplated for many years. Seeming lack of emotional connection is merely a coping strategy to bravely face death.

3. Make your loved one feel understood and supported.

Meeting your loved one's wish to die with opposition might feel like a natural reaction but ultimately is not constructive to the process of saying goodbye. Once I was able to verbalize to my father that I stood behind his decision to go, the process became much more intimate and peaceful.

4. Fulfill your loved ones' last wishes.

In our experience, my father asked to see a few people before he was ready to go. Apart from my mother and myself who were already at the hospital, he asked that my husband come to his bedside. We believe in our hearts that granting this wish provided a much-needed sense of security and strength to move on.

5. Keep your loved one company.

Suffice it to say that nothing heals like the human touch. We were very lucky to have my husband, my father's dear friend as well as his caring doctor by his bedside. The squeeze of a hand, even after all conversation ceases, is a powerful means to remain connected.

6. Make your loved one feel safe.

Of utmost concern to my father was that my mother would be taken care of after he is gone. We continuously reassured him that this would be our top priority and gave him every reason to trust that our actions would match our words.

7. Give yourself time to navigate the pending loss.

I must admit that I surprised myself to the extent I was able to be in my father's company during his final hours. Images of fear and tragedy were replaced with a feeling of peace and hope. But while I wished to be physically close to him, I also knew that many shorter goodbyes were more manageable for me than to be in his company without a break.

8. Make yourself available to others who are unable to say goodbye in person.

In our family, I am the one of three daughters who lives closest to home. Unfortunately, my sisters were unable to see my father in person before he passed. Under the circumstances, connecting with them over the phone in my father's presence drew us closer together and bridged the gap successfully.

9. Believe in the miracle of life and death.

People had often told me about the idea that while someone is dying, they are in fact growing wings to fly up to heaven like an angel. Being the realist that I am, this was a difficult concept for me to master. That is, until I experienced my father's death. Yes, he was preparing to depart life on earth, but now I do believe that his spirit remains in our hearts eternally.

10. Say one final goodbye once your loved one has passed.

Doing so was unimaginable for me until the time came. But suddenly, I considered it a must rather than a choice. It was part reality check, part last chance to do what seemed like the right thing. As I exited my father's hospital room, I chose not to look back one last time. In my mind, I wanted to be accepting and look towards the next steps: grieving and healing. That will come next.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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Alli on May 10, 2012:

It's weird how I found you, but I seriously believe you and I were supposed to cross paths. I'm searching anything to try to make some sense of my tomorrow. Unfortunately I have to say goodbye to a dear friend/loved one. I'm doubting my strength, but I've copied your steps down in my mind. I thank you for your experience. I hope with time you'll begin to heal.

lb0628 on April 26, 2012:

what an amazingly brave, insightful, and heartfelt entry. You are indeed a very talented writer!

Teresa Coppens from Ontario, Canada on April 26, 2012:

Clmama, what a powerful story and your tips for saying goodbye were right on the mark. We just went through similar circumstances 5 days before this Christmas just past. My husband's father died after a brief illness. He was 90 and had a long quite healthy life but it was still so hard to say goodbye. I was in tears reading your hub! I am so very sorry for your loss. This hub is a wonderful tribute to your journey.

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on April 15, 2012:

Clmama, my concolences to you also. I gave you thumbs up because you incorporated your personal experience with good coping advice. The emotional effects of loss never leaves us and lifts us up with all the many lessons we learn about loss. Thank you for providing such helpful advice.

Nina L James from chicago, Illinois on April 15, 2012:

I would like to express my sincere condolences for the loss of your father. Saying goodbye to your father was a difficult process for you; I can only imagine what you and your family have endured. I pray that God will continue to strengthen you and your family.

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