Some basic pointers about being with the ill or dying that includes how to listen, the value of silence and the significance of touch.
When visiting someone who is seriously ill or dying, it’s good to know that:
- It can be immensely helpful to simply be present as a compassionate, attentive listener, giving the other the space to talk freely, without fear of being judged. By listening you can help them sort through their confusion, identify their dilemmas and explore their options.
- You don’t have to have any answer. In fact providing answers and giving advice unasked for may not be helpful. The other may simply want to voice their feelings as a way to release them or become clearer about them. Questions they air might be rhetorical. Let them find their way to understanding, or being with what is happening in their own time. Their solutions or way of dealing with the issues that confront them are more valuable and more likely to suit them because they have discovered them for themselves. Your kindly-meant advice can in fact be an interference and stop their flow.
- A smile, a nod, or saying simply, ‘Aha’, or ‘Is that so?’ or ‘Tell me more about that’ – just minimal responses – is often all that is needed to let the other know that you are attentive and listening with love and acceptance. Though not always so, it can be counterproductive to agree; it may be seen as your ‘taking sides,’ and that may not be helpful. For example, if the other is talking negatively about a member of their family, simply indicate that you are listening, interested but without judgement.
- Your tone of voice, the intensity with which you speak, the rate, and the non-verbal behaviour that accompanies your speaking, such as eye movements, facial expressions and body posture all combine to convey a message. In a good listener all these will be congruent with what is said.
- By noticing the other’s body language and facial expression you can pick up cues as to how they are feeling. For example, their meeting your gaze suggests they are at ease and connected with you.
- Be aware of your own body language! Sitting with your arms crossed may suggest you are protecting yourself, not ‘letting the other in.’
- The ill/dying person might most appreciate your being in silence with them.
- Touch is another way to communicate with the other without words. For example, just holding the other’s hand or gently stroking their wrist. Sometimes touching may not be appropriate; it can be felt as intrusive. It’s important to check with the other if they are okay to be touched and also to ask yourself inwardly: Am I doing this for myself, to soothe myself, or for the other?
- Humour, used sensitively, can be a wonderful antidote to a sombre atmosphere.