The Emotions of Facing End of Life
The reality of our mortality becomes unavoidable.
Improved life expectancies have delayed facing end of life issues into the upper 80s and even early 90s. However, there always comes a time when the reality of our mortality becomes unavoidable. Aging’s effects can be delayed, not prevented. This means the time comes when difficult decisions create an emotional whirlwind.
Knowing it’s coming and preparing for it doesn’t prevent the havoc. However, it makes moving through the emotions easier.
Some seniors cling to life tenaciously. Their loving families live in an emotional cyclone for years.
Kenneth Knight is an excellent example of a man who kept his family in emotional twisters. Four years before he died, he was diagnosed with a heart so damaged that ‘death was imminent.’ Then several months later (and more than two years before his passing), doctors found he had blood cancer. This time he was given six months. He passed that date, remaining clear in mind, even if he needed some physical assistance. It wasn’t until he experienced a series of mini-strokes in the last six months of life that his cognitive function declined. The strokes also left him in need to complete care.
The emotions his family dealt with for over four years ranged from hope to despair. They saw him transition from independence to a nursing home’s level of care. They arranged for hospice multiple times. All but the last time, Kenneth outlived the six months Medicare covers. The family came to nickname him the “Energizer Bunny”(R) because he kept going—until he passed at 99.
Getting Through the Emotions
What got them through the state of being on the edge? They were able to use humor. Doing so validated the life of a man who was legendary for his wit. They adhered to the belief that a merry heart is effective medicine. It lifted Knight’s daughter through especially uncertain times.
Not every family of a senior faces recurring rallies. However, it isn’t uncommon. When one of our community members reaches a place where hospice could help, we are often asked, “How long does this mean my loved on is going to live?” Our best answer is this. “There’s no way to measure the human drive for living.”
“Can I afford to hope?” is another question we hear when the health of one of our senior community members begins to fail. We recognize hoping for recovery can lead to disappointment; however the loss of hope can create a dreadfully dark place.
We encourage practical optimism. Recognize the apparent reality in tension with hope. It may take you on a turbulent trip, yet a healthy connection with your emotions enhances the quality of your final days with your loved one.
“Am I bad person because I want this to be over?” is another question we hear. The desire to see your loved one at rest will fight against your desire to keep them with you forever. This can lay an incredibly heavy load of guilt upon you. Rather than accepting that burden, recognize that the compassion you feel as you see a loved one lingering in pain, or living trapped in a body that no longer allows communication, is a wholesome response. When the time of death does finally come, you’ll feel a combination of relief and grief. This also is normal.
The Value of Community
It’s much easier to deal with emotions when you are able to draw together as a family. When this isn’t possible, participating in a supportive community is helpful.
Knight’s daughter used the Facebook community as a channel to communicate with family and friends who had been her father’s students. This enabled them to reach out to her with encouragement.
For some, social media might be too far out there. Not everyone is comfortable with “letting it all hang out.” You might be more comfortable seeking support through your church, synagogue or mosque. For others, caregiver support groups can help ease the pressure.
Counseling can be helpful when the apparent eminent death of a loved one releases suppressed and unresolved relational issues. This type of support can help transform saying goodbye to a loved one into a time that brings closure instead of ongoing angst.
We invite the families of our seniors to be open with us about their questions. The Highgate Senior Living communities are here to provide a supportive environment for you as well.