It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.
The Buddha

five "themes" for caring for someone who is dying and some practical suggestions on how to do carryout those themes. You can think of these themes, taken from a publication of the Colorado Collaboration on End-of-Life Care, as the five R’s for caring: Remember,Recognize, Respect, Reinforce, and Reminisce.

  • REMEMBER that you are a different person than the other individual – Every individual has his/her own unique set of experiences throughout life. What is meaningful for one is not necessarily meaningful for another. Thus, when asked for your perspective, be careful not to speak as one who knows the ultimate truth. Instead, answer as one who, based on your own experiences, has found perspectives that are meaningful to you.
  • RECOGNIZE that to be facing one’s death or the death of a loved one is a profound experience that involves tasks that each individual must carry out for him/herself – When you are with someone place close attention to what they are saying related to the task(s) they are working on at the time. Listen (not just hear) and provide a safe place for the person to come to to understand his/her individually unique life experiences and to find meaning in them. Try and imagine what it is like to be the other person and be sensitive to the clues that he/she may use to indicate that is needed at this time, including whether he/she wants to be alone or accompanied. Finally, remember that being present in silence is still being present; silence doesn’t have to be filled with useless chatter.
  • RESPECT the meaning and values of that one you are with – Keep in mind that there exists no way for any of us to crawl into another person’s skin and experience all that he/she has. Similarly, no one can live all of our experiences. Thus, no one is in a infallible position to judge another person’s meanings and values.
  • REINFORCE the person’s decision-making capacity and support his/her actual decisions – Often, asking questions can help the dying person clarify his/her own needs, preferences, desires, values, etc. and make choices based on those clarifications.
  • REMINISCE with the person about his/her life and meaning – Asking the dying person to tell the stories of his/her life and providing the tools (poems, songs, readings, rituals, and prayers) can help greatly in helping the person to develop meaning in their life. I have discussed the power of telling stories in the article Meaning Making.
If you read these five themes carefully I believe you can quickly tell that there is nothing unique about these as they relate to caring for a dying person. If we all remembered:

  • that we are a different person than the one you are talking to;
  • that each of us has our own unique set of life experiences, our own life’s work to carry out, and our own meaning to make from those experiences;
  • that none of us is infallible and worthy of judging another’s meanings and values;
  • that the strengths of others should be reinforced so they can recognize and reach their own potential and make their own life decisions; and
  • that it can be rewarding to reminisce with others on one’s life and derive meaning from those stories
in ALL of our relationships, our lives, and the other person’s life, whether dying or not, might go a little bit more smoothly.