Facing death – whether our own or that of somebody we love – is tough. Whether it’s a result of a long, drawn-out illness or an unexpected crisis, the emotional response is real: fear, anger, disbelief and, of course, grief.
But while we can’t turn back the clock, there’s nothing to say that we can’t make the most of every day and hour we have left. Or if we’re caring for someone we love, making their final days as beautiful as possible can help.
There’s a lot more to life than ticking off a list of desirable activities just so you can say you’ve done them. Still, there’s no point leaving this world with regrets so while it might be too late to jump out of a plane, if we know our days are numbered, it makes sense to make the best of the time we’ve got.
That’s especially the case given that what might seem to be small gestures can make a big impact, according to Rose Dillon, manager of experience and engagement at LifeCircle Australia, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the way Australians and their carers experience end-of-life situations.
“There might be one last thing that they want to do,” Dillon says of a dying loved one. “If they’re in an aged care facility or hospital, they might want to go back to their home. Or they might want to just be outside and feel the air on their skin, or they might want to be at the beach, or they might want to see a particular person. There are lots of last wishes that people might want to experience.”
If you have a life-limiting condition, the chances are you wish you’d had the opportunity to spend more time with friends and family, including your children or grandchildren. And if you’ve got grown-up kids, it’s almost certain they regret not spending more time with you and now can’t possibly make up that lost time.
After all, kids and grandkids are our living legacy – in a way, our life carries on through them. If there’s a special memory you’d like them to hold forever, why not record it for them in some format? The next generation would probably enjoy hearing how you met your spouse or partner, how you remember your own parents or life during your childhood or what values helped you through hard times. You could write it down, record a message for them, or perhaps make a video they can watch later.
It’s those authentic messages of love, rather than the assets handed out from your estate, that will stay with your family and close friends always.
If you’re caring for a loved one with a life-limiting condition, it’s important to understand what their wishes are once they die – a conversation that Dillon says doesn’t always happen. She often speaks to relatives caring for a family member and they say, “I don’t know if the person wants to be cremated or buried, I don’t know if they even want any sort of religious service, we never talked about that.”
Those conversations, even if confronting for us, can be comforting for the person dying, Dillon notes.
“I think people are under the misconception that people don’t want to talk about end of life,” she says. “But often people, particularly older people, can be incredibly pragmatic about the end of life. They actually do want to talk about it.”
Dillon says her own mother spent hours on the last day of her life making her own funeral arrangements.
“She had a particular love of music and she wanted particular pieces of music and particular arrangements,” she says. “And it was really important to her to know that was going to happen, and the choir would be there. That was really special to her because she’d been part of that choir.
“It’s very hard for people if you haven’t had those kind of discussions and then you’re trying to organise an event which deeply honours the person who’s died.”
Dillon says the final days of life are often a time when people seek to right past wrongs, heal some wounds or even make contact with long-lost friends – so if you’re able to facilitate that for a family member at the end of life, or want to do so at the end of your own, it can prove to be a valuable experience.
“It might be a time to contact them and have really honest conversations about understanding that they’re getting towards the end of their life,” she explains. “Or perhaps have one more conversation, share some memories or make some memories for the people that they’re leaving behind.”
Even if death seems a long way off, it’s important to have conversations with family and friends about what you’d like to do and how you’d like to be cared for when your time comes. If you’re caring for someone who is dying, it might be comforting for you to hear how other carers coped with that difficult role.
Dillon says that even difficult conversations can help with the grieving process – although it may not seem so at the time, as you struggle to find the right words.
“It’s a great thing to be able to think ‘I did have those conversations, and even though some of them might have been hard to have, at least we did connect at a very special level before the person died, and we can remember that’,” she says.
Things to know: The information in this publication is general information and factual only. It does not constitute any recommendation or advice. It is an overview only and it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter or relied upon as such. You should consider obtaining your own independent professional advice.