When Death is Near Give Comfort to a Surviving Spouse
Your best friend calls you on the phone. The doctors have just told her that her husband has acute leukemia and will die within six months. With panic in her voice she cries, “What am I ever going to do without him? Why is God allowing this to happen to us?”
You are worried. Questions race through your mind: What can I do for her? What can I say to her? How can I possibly help my friend whose husband is dying?
If you are unprepared, you may react in one of two ways. The first is to give up in helplessness: “There's nothing I can do to change the situation. It's all in God's hands. I can't do anything to help her.” You feel inadequate as you observe firsthand death's power and unpredictability and are reminded of your own finiteness and mortality. Engulfed by your own feelings, you mistakenly conclude that there is nothing you can say or do.
The second reaction is to give in to your own fears: “What if I say the wrong thing? I don't want to hurt her.” You hesitate to talk about death. It's as if talking about it will make it happen. You also fear upsetting the individual who is already going through so much. With a genuine desire not to increase a loved one's pain, you avoid the entire subject. Constructive interaction with the spouse of a dying person is avoided – when it is needed most.
As a result, a person in deep pain over the imminent death of her spouse suffers another shock: she is isolated. She is emotionally alone in a world that revolves around one fact: her spouse is dying. No one around her will risk coming into her world.
A willingness to talk openly about death in a gentle yet firm way is essential. You must become a person who acknowledges the facts. This direct approach enables your friend to begin to accept a situation whose reality others have minimized.
As you encourage open discussion, she will feel free to verbalize the intense feelings of anger, grief and fear that are common reactions to an anticipated death. As you offer a listening ear, you encourage the beginning of the natural process of grief which will continue for months after the loved one has died.
There are several things that you can say which are helpful.
- Encourage your friend and her husband to discuss death and its consequences. Living with the anticipation of death presents a couple with a unique opportunity to prepare for it. Direct expressions of love and forgiveness can minimize regrets after the loved one has died.
- Distasteful as it may seem, settling business matters should be an integral part of such discussions. Information concerning bills, bankbooks, mortgage papers and insurance policies should be discussed. Responsibilities that the dying spouse previously handled should be turned over to the one surviving.
- Offer direct expressions of care and support. A general question such as “How is your husband these days?” communicates interest and concern without requiring a detailed description of the patient's medical status. A statement such as “I want you to know that I am thinking about you and your husband and care deeply for you both” does not necessitate more than a brief acknowledgement as a response. It also leaves the door open for more detailed discussion if your friend chooses.
- Let your friend know that you are praying. Enlist the prayer support of your friends and church. The knowledge that a community of believers is in prayer for the one who is dying and for his family is comforting. It also eases the loneliness and isolation experienced at this time.
- Try to empathize with how the surviving spouse is feeling; but don't say “I know how you feel” unless you honestly do. Well-meaning attempts to identify with the pain of death usually fail. The person whose life is completely uprooted will recognize and resent false comfort. A more direct statement is preferable: “I really can't imagine exactly how you feel; but I want you to know that I love you, and I'm here to help at any time.”
In addition to speaking with your friend, there are also a number of practical things that you can do at this time.
- Make yourself available in concrete ways; but don't take it personally if your offers are not used. Offers of specific services such as “I'm always at home in the evenings; feel free to call when you need someone to talk to” can be helpful. Meal preparation, babysitting or housekeeping services are also appreciated. Let both members of the couple know that you are available now as well as after the death. This can relieve daily pressures and allay anxieties about the future.
- Offer to drive to the hospital with your friend and remain in the waiting room during visiting hours. This will make your friend's visits easier and less lonesome. If you want to see the patient, get permission and make your visits short. Express your care for him but don't focus on his illness. Talk about the outside world and fill him in on personal and world news.
- Touch the person; don't avoid this important means of communicating love and support. At a time when your friend is feeling alone and abandoned, a hug, an arm around the shoulder or even a handshake is tangible evidence that there are people who love and care.
- Offer to read Scripture and seek together to apply spiritual truths to this situation. But be sensitive not to use Scripture as a superficial remedy. There is nothing worse than a well-meaning Christian friend who blithely states “Just remember that God works all things together for the good” in the middle of an emotional crisis. Although it reflects biblical truth, this type of response invalidates your friend's experience of pain and bereavement.
Specific Psalms which promise God's faithfulness in times of trouble can be very comforting. Ones that I have found helpful are Psalms 16, 18, 23, 30, 61, 71 and 116. Remind your friend that Jesus himself is a man acquainted with grief and sorrow (Isaiah 53:3) and that as our high priest he is able to sympathize with all that we experience (Hebrews 4:15). Most importantly for the believer, encourage your friend to remember the victory over death that Jesus secured at the cross and in his resurrection. As Paul wrote, “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1). The promise of eternal life in Christ can become even more real for those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Death is lonely. You come face to face with your own physical mortality and the mortality of those you love. You may feel helpless against the power of death; but you are not helpless to support its victims. Be willing to talk about death. Be a good listener. Be available. Be loving.
Most of all, don't abandon one who is already being left alone – perhaps for the first time in her life.