Sunday, April 6, 2008

Being with a Dying Person - A Sacred Event

Being HandsFor me when I was a medical student, a resident physician or a physician in practice and now as a bereavement professor, one of the most sacred experiences was that of being with a person during their final stages or life. Being able to walk with someone through the dying process is one of the most challenging and sacred of experiences.

This is the reason that I've selected the topic of Being with a Dying Person as the another topic for Sacred Life Sundays.

Sharing the End of Life
Sharing the wonder and the terror of being on the edge of being is bearing a witness to a person's final journey. Walking with a loved one or a patient on this sacred final path is a very extraordinary and intimate experience, as we learn the importance of just being.

Former New York Times book review editor and essayist, Anatole Broyard offered some wise first-hand insights about being with a person at the end of life in his essay "Doctor Talk to Me." In this article he encourages people, doctors in particular, to open their hearts to the dying patient with a reminder that...
    Not every patient can be saved, but his illness may be eased by the way the doctor responds to him...
    In learning to talk to his patients, the doctor may talk himself back into loving his work.
    He has little to lose and much to gain by letting the sick man into his heart.
    If he does, they can share, as few others can, the wonder, terror and exaltation of being on the edge of being.

Being a Healing Presence
Often the most difficult role of a physician or a family member is knowing when to "let go" with someone at the end of life and just "to be." We may feel as though we have little to offer the dying patient, yet these wise words from Anatole Broyard, a dying patient, can help us to realize that illness may be eased by the way the doctor (or the family) responds to the patient.

There is a healing power in human presence in simply being.

    Just Be

    Be yourself and relate person to person.
    Be ready to listen again and again.
    Be respectful.
    Be aware of feelings and non-verbal cues.
    Be present.
    Be comfortable with silence.
    Be human.
    Be genuine.
    Most of all--Be there.

    © Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS

Sharing the Silence
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen offers the following description of being and sharing true intimacy.
    We experience intimacy not by sharing words,
    but by sharing the silence.
In the end of life what matters, what makes the difference, is taking the time to slow down, to hold a hand, to give support, to just be and to share the silence.

Sacred Life Sunday
This post is one of the Celebrating Sacred Life Sundays Post, a weekly celebration of what is sacred and special in our life. See the first post on Sacred Life Sunday to read more.


Dyer, K. Healers and Healing. July 1998. At:
Ostaseski F. How to be with a Dying Person. On Our Own Terms. 2000, Educational Broadcasting Corporation/Public Affairs Television, Inc. At:
Being a Supportive Friend to A Grieving Person, North Central Florida Hospice, Inc. 1996.
Rabow MW, McPhee SJ. Beyond breaking bad news: how to help patient who suffer. WJM 1999:171:260-263. At:
Broyard A. Doctor Talk to Me. New York Times. August, 26 1990.

Image Source:
Julio Cid. Being Hands. Used with Permission