Ask a person what they think of death and you will realize the thought doesn’t match with the rest. For some, it’s about getting done with a lifetime of experiences and journey, for many it’s too short and the opinions go on. Most talk only when it happens to them or to someone they love and thinking about it is often in negative terms. However, the truth remains the same: death is inevitable. But what about those who know when this journey is bound to end due to an ailment? Yes, we are talking about terminally ill patients.

What is a terminal illness? Sometimes referred to as a life-limiting illness, it can be defined as a disease or condition which can’t be cured and is likely to lead to someone’s death, many of which can include conditions like advanced cancer, dementia (including Alzheimer’s), motor neuron disease, lung disease, neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and so on. Coming with its own set of physical challenges, psychological distress shouldn’t be left out while catering for them.

A lot of researches done on the mental aspect of terminal patients have numerous findings; such as most patients who request aid in dying do not have a depressive disorder. Or be it accepting the thoughts such as “I have to accept the undeniable approach of my death,” “I have to accept my need for assistance,” “I have to accept this unsatisfactory circumstance” and “I have to accept this as my destiny and an outcome of my life.” For many, it has been about realizing that life is short. On the contrary, a recent study states that it is the opposite to many, for dying is a ‘happier’ experience than most people imagine, as they are ‘filled with love, social connection, and meaning’. Nevertheless, mental health is an important criterion to be concerned with for such patients.

Suffering due to such distress often leads to stress and challenges among the patients and their families in diagnosis and treatment. It impairs the patient’s capacity for pleasure, meaning, and connection, amplifying pain and other symptoms, thereby causing anguish and worry in family members and friends. Depression is a major risk factor for suicide. Increased attention to diagnosis and treatment of depression can improve the coping mechanisms of the patients and the people around them. There are several things to keep in mind that can help with this:

  • Listen – Not hearing, but listening. Words can’t replace the feeling of being present without offering an opinion or sympathy. It’s not about switching the subject to cheerful stuff or things not surrounding their condition, it’s about providing an ear to their anxiety, fear and sadness. When they finish sharing their thoughts, ask them what they would want out of it, why do they feel things have to end on a bad note. Focus on the outcome, not on the symptoms or the condition. In a way, try to keep the conversation positive.
  • Be present in the moment – If they can’t converse but can nod, ask yes/no questions. Ask if they would like you to read something to them, be it the newspaper, their favorite book, passages from their favorite scriptures, etc. Ask if they would like to listen to music. Silence is underrated, if they don’t want to converse, that’s okay. But make them feel you want to be there with them. Maybe tell them about your day.
  • The power of touch – A soothing touch in the form of holding hands, caressing their hair, feeding them with love, embracing them can do wonders. A lot of times they may not prefer it, but who doesn’t love the warmth of a comforting touch?
  • Spiritual needs – Not to be missed, but a lot of people want to make amends with people they have let down, with the long-lost ones, for the ‘sins’ they have committed. Listen to them, ask them what would they like to do. Try helping them out with their humane needs, it’s about letting go and finding solace in forgiveness.

In times of tragedy, feelings come rushing to the surface. There are questions, grunts, pain, confusion, all that amalgamate and create a torpedo of emotional outpour. There may be times when reaching out to these patients isn’t enough, they don’t find peace whatsoever, which may leave both them and their loved ones burnt out. In these cases, reaching out to a counsellor is the ideal choice, for they may assist in dealing with the emotions and the situation. Because in the end, the bitter truth of loss comes with pain but can help in gaining closure and getting back on track.

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