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More lessons on saying goodbye

How to Say Good-bye When Someone You Love Is Dying: Page 2

By , Caring.com contributing editor
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Lesson #5: Keep talking even if you're not sure you're being heard

"My granddad was in a coma, and I felt I never got to tell him I loved him," says a 38-year-old Atlanta engineer. "Later someone told me he probably could have heard me, and I've kicked myself ever since for keeping quiet."

"Hearing is the last sense to leave the room, many studies show," says Sherry E. Showalter, a hospice social worker in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and the author of Krumpled Kleenex: Stories of Heartache and Healing. That's why you should always assume that a person who's unconscious, in a coma, or seems otherwise unresponsive can hear you, she says. "Say what's in your heart."

You may even get a reply. One family held the phone up to the ear of their grandmother, who'd been fading in and out of consciousness for days, so a son who was overseas and unable to travel could speak to her. Although she never regained consciousness, she faintly pressed her daughter's palm when she heard her son's voice. She died three hours later.

Lesson #6: Try to stay present -- don't get ahead of yourself

Survivors report that each precious moment can feel emotionally charged -- but overthinking this enormity can, ironically, dilute your ability to fully experience those moments.

At her much-loved father's bedside, Philadelphia writer Lise Funderberg began to notice herself trying to mentally record and then hang onto touching interactions as she was experiencing them. "I was hyperaware that every day could be his last day, so I'd get preoccupied thinking, 'Was that the last time he'll ever call me 'honeybaby'?'" recalls the author of Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home. She wishes she'd been able to turn off her "recorder brain" more in order to simply be with him in the moment.

Lesson #7: Trust your instincts, not "the rules"

Modern American culture has developed an odd code of conduct about how to say good-bye, Callanan says. One common expectation, for example, is that people should be somber. The problem: These beliefs simply aren't applicable to every situation.

Don't let anyone tell you there's a "right" way to behave. For some people, for example, jokes and obliviousness are the right tone right to the end. "I don't feel there was anything left unsaid, so I just chattered about me and my family as if she weren't sick," says New Jersey account manager Dawn Barclay of the 19 months her mother was hospitalized before dying, at 71, as the result of a stroke during heart surgery. "I wanted her to feel part of my everyday life, and she seemed to like it more than being pitied or hearing confessions about all the lousy things I'd done."

Lesson #8: You don't have to issue a formal farewell every time you leave the room

Not knowing if a parting is the final one brings the happiest of visits to an uncertain juncture. Here's where it helps to have expressed love, appreciation, forgiveness, and reassurance in an ongoing way, grieving survivors say.

"There's no law you have to 'make your peace' in one swoop. Say what you need to say many times and in different ways," Callanan recommends. "You'll be less likely to have regrets when the moment finally comes."

A full-time mother in Chicago says she was relieved to learn that the origin of "good-bye" is "God be with you." "It made talking to my dying father about what he meant to me seem less like a heavy final exchange and more like an ongoing kind of blessing," she says.

On parting, hospice workers suggest loving, open-ended phrases, like: "I love you; sleep well." Or in place of words, express all you're feeling with an embrace.

Lesson #9: You can speak volumes without uttering a word

It's hard to say good-bye -- but you don't have to "say" anything. Most critical: Just show up. Be there.

Susan, a 46-year-old Ohioan, says she felt awkward while listening to the eloquent words of comfort her siblings were giving their dying mother. "Everything I thought of saying either sounded like a lame echo of theirs or like a cliché that Mom would know wasn't really me. So instead I just sat next to her and held her hand for hours," she says. "From the way she gripped it back, even in her weak state, I know it meant a lot to her."

Foot rubs, stroking an arm or shoulder, kisses, smiles, and gazing into someone's eyes all communicate compassion, love, and gratitude for a shared lifetime. With or without accompanying conversation, your presence and your touch rank among the most eloquent, regret-free ways there are of saying good-bye.