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Coming to Terms with Dying

When you and your dad come to the realization that his condition is terminal, there are a number of stages each of you may go through. Chances are you will not go through these stages in sync with each other. Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a now famous book, On Death and Dying in the late 1960s, which broke new ground in our understanding of how people cope with dying and death. Through interviews and counseling of terminally ill patients, Dr. Ku[um]bler-Ross shared the following observations of five basic stages many people go through as they come to terms with dying:

  1. Denial. At first, you simply can't believe it is true. The realization that life will end--even if you have lived a long life--is too much to absorb. Denial is the mind's shock absorber, giving you a chance to soak in the reality of dying. So if you and your Dad act like nothing has really changed, it's okay. At least for a while.
  2. Anger. If you're on the receiving end of your dad's anger, you might think this isn't such a great stage. However, anger means that your dad is past denying his condition. He may be angry at his physician, the nurses trying to care for him, God, family members, friends, or he may be just angry at life itself. Let him express his anger. He'll need to go through this before he can move on to acceptance.
  3. Bargaining. Ever secretly make a deal with God--or whatever higher power you believe in--that if you do a certain good thing, then you'll get something in return. Or you'll look for a "sign" to help you make a big decision? That's what the bargaining stage is essentially all about. Your parent may be bargaining for more time. Perhaps, your mom wants to hold on until a special family event--a reunion, a wedding, or birth of a grandchild. During this period, you may see your mom becoming very active in her health care trying to gain control. If you see this in your mom, explore what her hopes are and assist her in making it happen.
  4. Depression. Once it becomes undeniably clear that all the bargaining in the world won't change the inevitable, your dad will likely become depressed. He'll be mourning the loss of his life, of the things to come and the things he didn't get to do. During this period it is helpful to thank your parent for all that he or she has done for you. Acknowledge what Dad has accomplished during his lifetime. He'll need this time to mourn and will probably do so, quietly and in private. Antidepressants and cheery conversation won't make it go away. Nor should it. It's a healthy response to the realization that his life is ending.
  5. Acceptance. Hopefully, your parent will reach this final stage, when he or she peacefully accepts the fact that death is near. Mom will begin to disengage--she may tell you that she doesn't want any more visitors. She will not want to go through the emotional hard work of repeated good-byes. Chances are you aren't going to reach this stage at the same time as your parent. You, or perhaps one of your siblings, might be angry and want Mom to fight this by trying a new treatment therapy to buy more time. You'll need to respect where she is. Don't push her back after she's finally come to terms with dying.

Perhaps being aware of the various stages that many people experience in response to the dying of a loved one may help you better understand your own feelings and those of your siblings and surviving parent. Each of you will handle your feelings differently; just stay focused on what your dying parent needs and most of the rest will fall into place.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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