How to cope when someone you love is dying, and nothing makes sense

Guest post by Rachel Graves

We know your heart hurts, and we can’t help that, but here are some tips on how to cope while you deal with the death of a loved one. (Photo By: Eva BlueCC BY 2.0)
I’m experienced with a topic no one wants to talk about — the death of a loved one. Even though I’m only thirty-something, I’ve seen relatives through hospice care three times.

When someone you love dies it’s like being dropped into a foreign world. Everything looks vaguely familiar but nothing makes sense.

Here are some pieces of advice to help you find your way…

Take help when it’s offered

When someone asks, “is there anything I can do?” give them a specific task. Saying “it would be wonderful if you could drop off some paper plates, no one has time for dishes” or “could you walk Fido?” is perfectly okay. Yes, there are a thousand details to think about, but you don’t have to do everything. Remember, mourning takes energy; let people help you through it.

You want hospice care. Really…

Hospice is the branch of medicine that brings comfort to the dying. They aren’t concerned with curing a disease or making last-ditch efforts to save someone — they simply bring comfort. Hospice care can be given in your loved one’s home or in a hospice house. The hospice house is a more homelike environment than a hospital. Hospice patients usually get a private room and the hospice house has amenities like a kitchen for you to use. This can be helpful if you’ve come in from out-of-town. After your loved one passes the hospice gives you access to a network of grief counselors and help. They’ll even call to check up on you in a few months.

Find the paperwork

Wills are not registered with the state until after someone dies. If the person you love can’t tell you where the document is the court acts as if it doesn’t exist. Life insurance works the same way — no account number and no form means no pay out. So save any official paperwork, shove it in a box and go through it later if that’s easier, but don’t throw away anything that looks like it might be related to an estate.

The average funeral costs more than your first car

A simple cremation can be as cheap as $1,000 but once you add on things like death certificates ($45 each in my home state) and obituaries ($15 per word), the total cost can be more than $8,000. The funeral industry is much like the wedding industry in that you’ll be offered a lot of things that are really unnecessary, such as embossed thank you notes (not kidding). It’s really helpful to have a friend or person outside of the family come with you to the funeral home to rein in on the spending.

There’s no right way to do this

I played cards in my father’s hospice room, baked an apple pie for my dying father-in-law, and read the Bible to my unresponsive mother-in-law. Dying is a very personal thing, if you think your loved one would want you to hold a swinging wake that lasts until dawn, go for it. If you suspect they’d rather have a church funeral, then do that. One of my friends left behind a 24-year-old daughter and a collection of designer clothes. I knew she’d be happy when her daughter rocked a black sheath dress, smoky eyes, bright red lips, and a vintage beret at the funeral.

If you don’t remember anything else from this post, remember this: you didn’t do anything wrong. This isn’t a test. You can’t fail. Be kind to yourself.

Comments on How to cope when someone you love is dying, and nothing makes sense

    • It’s amazing how easy it is to slip into the trap of having to do things ‘right’. There is no right or wrong here. Break down crying or don’t. Have a full church funeral or just a BBQ. Your journey is up to you, don’t let anyone judge you.

      • Couldn’t have said it better myself. Like you I have experienced a lot of grief at 30 years of age. Mine is a different experience to yours though, only one person went through care most were young and were all accidents or worse.

        I think you forgot to add though there will be judgement. As disgusting as it is people WILL judge you for not grieving the ‘right way’ ie their way. Just walk away. There is no point in arguing, no point in getting upset. Just walk away. I am not very good at walking away usually but that is one situation in which I just leave, you don’t have to justify the way you grieve to anyone.

  1. the last line is the meat and potatoes there. that’s universal, whether your loved one’s death was long and drawn out or sudden, because it’s all about grief. i know from experience…my husband went to work one morning nearly four years ago and never came home. also, if you know someone who is grieving, it helps to offer to do something specific if you know of something that needs doing, instead of saying “call if you need something”. a grieving person doesn’t always have the presence of mind to make specific requests.

    • “a grieving person doesn’t always have the presence of mind to make specific requests.”

      ….yes. So much yes. I’ve lost both of my parents, and I heard variations on that line more times than I could count. But I never knew what to ask for… I just found myself wishing people would ask me out for coffee or something. But I didn’t want to ask, because a part of me suspected they said that just to say something. The friends who sent cards, flowers, books, etc., the ones who called out of the blue, or showed up with food – I was SO grateful to them. I could never have asked, and I was so relieved I didn’t have to.

  2. A very good friend of mine passed away last year, and the feeling of hopelessness was very prevalent for all of us. He fought cancer hard for five or six years and in the end we were very happy he wasn’t suffering anymore, but watched on in horror at what his parents, sister, and wife had to endure. Being helpful is the MOST important thing for those who are outside of the immediate family. We want to feed you, run errands for you, be that shoulder to cry on (even if we’re going to cry too), mow your lawn, make sure the bills get paid… It is the mundane that is painful and we want to help more than anything aside from raising the dead.

  3. Thank you for this article…its good to remember when someone asks “Is there anything I can do?” It’s okay to say, “Sit with me.” I know when I lost my Dad, I was inconsolable, and isolated. You don’t have to talk, just let your loved ones be there for you.

    It’s okay to cry, to scream to punch pillows. Try not to do the “If only I had….” to yourself. Know that if given 5 minutes more, your loved one would have told you all is forgiven, that they love you, and that you shouldn’t beat yourself up over things that cannot be changed.

  4. As well as being kind to yourself, it’s okay to not be miserable all the time. Sometimes, in the midst of the grief, something will be funny and maybe you’ll laugh. It doesn’t mean you aren’t heart-broken. It doesn’t make you a bad person, or mean that you didn’t love the one you lost. It’s okay.

    If you find something that lifts the burden, do it. For me, after losing my father, it was walking to work from the train station instead of taking the bus. The movement, the people-watching, somehow let my mind shut off and I could simply be instead of dwelling on my sadness.

    If you’re with someone who’s experiencing a loss, it’s okay to not always be bringing it up and asking what you can do to help. There were times when not talking about it and going on as though all was normal was a blessed relief.

  5. My dying grandparents had a pre-paid funeral. Like 10 years ago, they went to the funeral home, decided on some things and paid for it. It was so nice to show up the day my grandfather died and only have to make like 3 decisions (flowers, obit, and memory card-thing). I’m making my parents do it next time they have a deal.
    It saved money because of inflation, and we knew it was exactly what my grandfather wanted. Day of, all we had to do was pay for the upgraded flowers and obit.

    I highly suggest that as an option.

    • Your grandparents were wonderful to do that for your family!

      I’ve recently found out that funeral homes will come to your house to help you set up the pre-paid funeral package. Sometimes the packages are based on a bond or interest income. Many funeral homes are part of a nationwide network, so if you move your plan moves with you. I’m sure the options vary, but it’s something I’ll be planning soon.

  6. When my Aunt was in hospice, I found some things to be more helpful than others.
    First off, I was designated lunch-bringer. I brought sandwiches every day that I came to visit. (My dad fell in love with Banh Mi during this time.) Some days I would bring tacos, other days pupusas, or sandwiches. I brought my cousin iced tea, and ran errands on command. These things made me feel better because I felt useful and important, rather than a grieving sack of meat.
    I saved up all my sadness for the end of the day when I could go home and cry in private with my husband and cat.
    I don’t have a network of friends where I live, so I was pretty alone at the time. I made sure to play board games, get out of the house, ride my bike (it’s totally possible to ride your bike and sob at the same time: The More You Know) and just generally stay active.
    Nights were the worst, because that’s when I’d lay in bed and THINK super hard, so I made sure to cuddle the cat, cry a lot and be prepared for the next day.
    I sat with my Aunt, feeling like I needed to say something, but coming up wordless. I told her she was always my favorite aunt, and through her dry, toothless mouth, she said “I know.” Bittersweet and funny.
    I made all the food for her memorial. I didn’t get what I needed out of the event, and when I came home, I really broke down hard. I’d always thought of memorials as the place for the big cathartic event, but this one didn’t work for me.

  7. I wanted to say thank you for this. Both as a daughter who had her father in hospice care, and as an ICU nurse who takes care of patients for whom the families say “do everything” when there isn’t anything left to save. Thank you.

  8. I have to really add in my 2 cents about hospice care as well. Most people do not get hospice until much later, you can get a hospice evaluation just about any time and it truly is an amazing service.

    In fact, it has been proven that persons on hospice care actually live longer than those who are not.

    Hospice provides the family with RESOURCES, pain medication, and around the clock “person-to-call” if they have questions. That alone is worth it in my opinion, because that lost feeling when someone is dying and you don’t know what to do, but the trivialities of life are still butting in.. It is totally worth having.

  9. Nth-ing hospice care if it’s available to you. They are palliative care specialists, also specialists in pain management. My grandmother had a very peaceful death at home in her own bed because she was able to be looked after by the local hospice as an outpatient.

  10. My father died in 2012, after about 8 months with ALS. And I just wanted to confirm that there’s no wrong way to cope. For my brothers and husband and I, it meant telling horrible jokes at his expense. I still remember the first one. We had gone to my aunt’s house while hospice got somebody to collect the body because that was… hard. And I got my husband to cook us breakfast because of course he had to die at some ungodly hour in the morning and by that point we were all hungry and exhausted. Anyways, the hubs asked my brother if he wanted any bacon, only to find out that we didn’t actually have any bacon. I was being overly apologetic about it, and my brother said “That’s the saddest thing that’s happened to me all day.”

    This probably sounds awful to somebody out there, but my dad would have loved it. It felt good to laugh, even while I still wanted to cry. My husband and I also took that opportunity to take a road trip from Northern California, where my father was buried, to Southern California, where my mother lived, along the scenic route. This gave us a chance to talk to each other, and traveling and seeing things was something my dad had always liked to do. It helped me feel whole again.

    A lot of what helped us come to terms with it was that my dad was an optimist, through to the end. He wasn’t in denial about the fact that he was dying, but he made the best of everything he could, even as ALS took away his ability to walk, talk, eat, and move. He also spent the last part of his life writing stories, which I’m going to be able to share with my son, who he never got to meet.

    • My family was very similar when my grandmother passed away after a 25-year battle with cancer. When she was alive, seemingly her favorite thing was to be made fun of by her lovingly snarky kids and grandkids. When she was on hospice for the last couple days of her life, she gave it back as good as she ever got it! After she died, we continued with the affectionate jabs just as she would have wanted.

  11. Write. Things. Down.

    If you are in any way responsible for any single thing, write it down. My mom has been the executor of a few family estates (her brother’s very recently) and the advice she gave me was to write down what people tell you, what you have to do, questions you have. When you’re grieving you won’t remember things you usually would. That important phone number? What ID you’ll need with you to get a death certificate done? In one ear and out the other. So write, write, write.

  12. I found out that HOSPICE will also come to the nursing home; didn’t know that! They helped us when my father was dying- far more than the nursing home would have. They were more clear with their communication with us, and allowed my dad to have more pain meds than the “home” was allowed to give. I cannot tell you how much help it was to have them there.

  13. Thousandth-ing Hospice if you have the ability to do so. The hardest part of my mom dying was that she died at home, and we had no real help (except from some kind of bare-bones nurse service that was providing painkillers). It would’ve been infinitely easier on us (my dad, my aunt/mom’s sister, and me) if we had had the peace of mind to know that she was as well cared for as possible towards the end. As it was, we were kind of on our own and left to wonder are we doing this right? is she in pain? (she wasn’t really conscious so she couldn’t tell us…) Is there anything else we should be doing? If I had known all that was taken care of I probably would’ve spent more time with her near the end of her life. As it was the whole worrying about the welfare of a dying parent thing was a little heavy for 19 year old me and I spent a lot of time chain smoking and avoiding conversations with my family.

  14. Thank you for posting this. It nicely summarizes my thoughts this month in a way I couldn’t express. My grandmother passed away last week, and I spent the week before she passed in the hospital with her. I would also add that dealing with grief doesn’t have to be public OR private – either side of the spectrum of sharing too much or too little can be harmful. There is a place and a time for both dealing with your personal grief and also letting everyone around you know how to help you cope, but as you said, there is no wrong way.

  15. My dad died when I was 15 years old and I vividly remember the Hospice nurse (whom I had never met before since she was there while I was in school) and how she helped my family that day. I am so very grateful to that kind woman who made our home feel calm and comforting while we all tried to take in what had just happened.

  16. I’m from a large family and when I was quite young my favourite sister died. I carry with me the memory of the night we found out, our neighbour who with calm presence came over and organised and put we younger children to bed, then stayed to help mum & dad. She brought comfort and balance to the situation which I’m still grateful to her for some 30 years later. I think this blog offers good guidance, though I’d agree with some of the other commenters. If you are offering your support to someone who is grieving offer something specific, because they may not be in a place to tell you what they need.

  17. Great article. I’m 23 and have lost my father, 2 grandparents, a childhood friend, an aunt, cousin, and a handful of other extended family members within the past 4 years. I have been to so many funerals, I have a “funeral outfit.”

    Thank you for this article.
    I’d like to add a few thoughts.

    1. Hospice. My dad was in hospice for less than a week, but my family found is immensely helpful. The nurses were beyond sweet, quiet, and respectful. They allowed us to stay overnight, bring in food, cry int he hallway, etc…
    2. Paperwork. Try to get as much done while the person is alive. Seriously… it’s a weird thing to go through and discuss, but there is SO much work to do when a person dies….especially if they have $$, business, etc…
    3. Funeral. Don’t get caught up in pleasing or entertaining everyone. F**k is! Do low key, have people bring crap, don’t stress.

  18. I was scrolling and looking for one article, and found this one instead. I’m so glad I did. My father is currently in the hospital with COPD, and he knows Hospice is coming in when (if) he is ever released to come home. Mom and I are using the time that we can’t visit him to go over all the arrangements, financial papers, decisions, etc. that I know we won’t be ready to handle when the time actually gets here. It’s really odd to be thinking of things after his future death, but it keeps me busy so I can’t dwell on it too much right now.

  19. Today is the one year anniversary of the death of a lifelong friend for me. This article is hard, yet good at the same time.

    Just remember, grief does not just end, it’s not something that lasts two weeks or two months it is indefinite. You will always have moments where you feel sad for no reason and things like birthdays, anniversaries and special celebration days like Christmas or the family reunion or whatnot will be hard.
    And that’s okay too.

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