Your Fever Questions Answered

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Q: My mom has a lot of pain and is breaking down emotionally. She says she wants to die. I don't know how to help her. What can I do?

It can be very hard to watch someone suffer. Physical, emotional and spiritual suffering are intertwined, and they affect each other. All aspects of suffering need to be acknowledged and addressed.

Your mom’s pain is likely a major factor in the distress she’s feeling. It may be this pain that’s making her say she wants to die. Pain can be so overwhelming that it can overshadow everything else in a person’s life. If the pain is treated and eased then she can begin to focus again on other things.

You may have to advocate for your mom with the health team. Be her voice, as she’s finding it hard to deal with things. You can ask to have her pain assessed and controlled, so she can find some relief and improve the quality of her life. Discuss your concerns with your mother's health care team. Some health care providers specialize in pain management or palliative care, and can make suggestions that may help ease her pain. Controlling the pain will not suddenly make everything better, but it may help her focus on other aspects of her situation, such as her emotions.

People who are dying are deeply affected by their decreasing ability to care for themselves. It can lead them to rethink their own sense of who they are, and make them feel numb, sad, helpless, disappointed or angry. All these reactions are normal, and family members sometimes report similar feelings. Your mom may be experiencing depression. Her health care team needs to assess her to see if she is showing symptoms of depression and can offer treatment if needed.

There are no specific words that will alleviate your mom’s distress. Yet there’s much you can do to give her comfort. Sometimes it’s just by being physically present.

You likely can make the biggest difference by being attentive and listening to your mom. This tells her many things: that you’re there to support her, that you’re attuned to her needs; and that you’re available for her. It may help to tell your mom that you’re there to support her. Sometimes people don’t say it out loud. They assume their support and intentions are obvious, but it’s important to put it into words. Your mom may get comfort from hearing words like this: "I love you and I care about you. I don’t like to see you going through this. I want you to know that you’re not alone, and I am here for you whenever you need me." This also leaves the conversation open and lets your mom talk about the emotional and spiritual issues she may be struggling with. Your mom may find it hard to talk about such things with family, and you may want to call on a member of the health care team, such a social worker or spiritual care provider. If you mom has had her own connection with a spiritual leader in the past, it may be helpful to involve this person in her care.

Q: My mother’s dying and my father won’t talk about it. How can I help my father cope with my mother’s illness?

Your father probably finds this a very difficult and stressful situation. People deal with stress in different ways, and no one approach is better than any other. As well, people’s responses can change over time. They may not want to talk right away, but may open up with time.

Your father may not be ready to open up now. Fathers often feel they have a role to maintain, and that they have to be strong when there’s trouble in a family. Your father may feel that silence is a way of showing strength and courage while your mother is dying. He may be having a hard time imagining life without your mother and be worrying about the future. He may have never faced a situation as difficult as this, and so may be struggling with how to act and what to say.

One way of inviting your father to open up is to talk to him about your own feelings. Let him know you’re willing to listen to anything he may want to say. If he sees that you’re okay with talking about your mother dying, it may tell him it’s okay for him to talk about it if he wants. This may work, or it may not. At least you’ve opened the door and let him know you’re willing to listen if he wants to talk. Your father must decide when he’s ready to go through the door.

If your father doesn’t respond to your invitation, it’s probably not productive to keep mentioning it. At this point, simply be present for him. This may be all the support he can accept right now. People tend to react to the stress of someone dying in the same way they’ve reacted to other stresses in their lives. Those who’ve responded with silence to the stresses of work, health, or finances usually respond in silence to grief and loss. Over time and with the continued presence and support of family they may slowly start to open up.

Your father may have friends or a faith community, who may be able to help him open up. They too may let him know in subtle ways that they're there for him if he feels like talking. It may be worth exploring whether your father has such a network in his life.

Sometimes sadness can worsen and become a severe depression. Watch for signs that your father isn’t eating, or sleeping, or has lost interest in things that used to bring him pleasure. If you notice these things, or you’re worried about your father's physical or mental health, let someone on his health care team know about it. Someone who is depressed may need medical help to recover from it.

Q: My husband died suddenly about a year ago. I’m still having trouble sleeping and I just wish the pain would end. Can you die from a broken heart?

Learning to live without your husband, and adapting to a very different life without him is a demanding experience. This period is the most difficult, especially if your loss was sudden or unexpected, and if you didn’t have a proper chance to say goodbye. It’s part of the grieving process to feel immense sadness and miss the person who died.

Each person grieves in his or her own way. Often it can be overwhelming and isolating. Many people go through a time of numbness, often described as walking through a fog. Some people have vivid dreams or daydreams that their loved one will walk through the door as if still alive. Some people try to avoid the pain by keeping busy. While others wait for the pain to subside on its own, but it often resurfaces without warning. It may be especially overwhelming on anniversaries or holidays, with special songs, in shared places, or with specific people or memories.

Generally, people need to confront the pain and the loss, in order to work through the grieving process. Some people find writing regularly in a journal can help work out the pain. You may find comfort in writing a letter to your husband, or in finding some other way to say goodbye.

Grieving can be very difficult to do alone. Talking with trusted people can help. Trusted friends or family members can be much needed supports, and can help break down a sense of isolation. It may help to see a counselor to talk about your experiences and feelings. Think about joining a grief support group. There may be value in hearing how others are dealing with similar loss, and in knowing that others too are feeling pain and grief. If your area has a hospice or palliative care association you may want to contact them. Often, they run bereavement programs, or they can refer you to such a program.

Grieving takes time. Some people say that grieving the death of an important person never ends; it just changes. As time goes on you’ll continue to think about your husband, or feel his presence, but your emotions won’t be as overwhelming as they are right now.

Sometimes grief is especially complex and hard to work through. It often happens when there are several deaths close together or when the person who died was central in your life, as your husband was. Such situations may lead to depression. Feeling isolated or overwhelmed can increase that risk. It’s important to be aware of this. Symptoms of depression can be similar to symptoms of grief. Notice especially if you can’t eat or sleep or you can’t get interested in things that used to give you pleasure. Depression is serious because it engulfs every aspect of our lives and distorts the way we feel about the world and ourselves. Often it can’t be resolved alone. If you’re concerned about your emotions, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider who can help you find support, resources, or treatment if necessary.

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