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6 Ways to Comfort Family Members in the 11th Hour

June 3, 2024

Hands forming in the shape of a heart in the sunset
A special thanks to Saiph Muhammad for allowing us to use his image.

The 11th hour in end-of-life care is well-known for its frenetic energy. Personalities and opinions of family members gather under the same roof to say their goodbyes, and tension may be present, adding more distress to the emotional task of saying goodbye to a loved family member.

Whether you are an end-of-life professional or a well-meaning friend who cares, these tips can help ground someone who is experiencing high emotions.

Let them cry and show their emotions. Be aware of how their emotions are affecting you. We often are triggered by a show of emotion from someone else, and our natural reaction is to comfort to attempt to stop the emotions that appear to be causing them discomfort. When someone is experiencing shock, sadness, tearfulness, helplessness, and other forms of trauma, we must allow for trauma to leave the body. Take their cues to help provide them with what they need. Purging these emotions through crying, yelling, walking away from the situation, remaining silent, talking a lot, and many other reactions is necessary to help our brains assimilate the information of the dying event. When we feel the immediate need to calm them, we need to check in to see whose need it really is. Often, it is our own need to avoid discomfort. We don’t want to deny them of their own needs because we ourselves are uncomfortable. The best action we can take is to stay present and allow them to express their emotions. Take comfort in knowing that surges of emotion don’t last as long as we think they do. The average lifespan of an emotion is 90 seconds.

Touch their hands. Touching someone’s hands is a safe, predictable way to show your desire to comfort. As humans, we are wired to be be touched. When we connect hands, oxytocin (the “love hormone”) is secreted, creating a sense of calm.

Ask them to look at your eyes. This simple action is one of the most effective grounding techniques. When the person looks into your eyes, they read your non-verbals. There’s a reason they say the eyes are the window to your soul. We can read so many feelings and emotions just by looking at someone’s eyes.

Help them breathe deeply and slowly. Breathing creates an awareness in the body and puts the person experiencing high emotions in touch with the rhythmic patterns of the body. Taking a deep breath places some control back into their personal agency, which allows them to self-soothe.

Encourage them to take a walking break. Beyond the benefits of taking a break from the impending death, walking provides bilateral stimulation to the body, which helps the brain experiencing trauma move from fight-or-flight of hypervigilance to rest-and-digest mode. It eases anxiety,increases emotional regualtion, and strengthens the neural pathways that help reduce your reactivity to stress. It also boosts serotonin and dopamine, which can create a sense of calm within the body.

Give them information in small doses. When are person is experiencing trauma or high emotions, they are operating mostly from an overactive limbic system, the emotions center of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, our logic/reasoning and decision-making center, does not function as well. The ability to take in new information and use that information is greatly diminished. Offer information in small doses to help them take in and retain the information. We developed our Pocket Guide series to assist those helping the family members and caregivers take in bite-sized pieces of information without overwhelming them during their time of need. For example, our Pocket Guide The Active Dying Process: What to Expect and how You Can Comfort Your Loved One details specific symptoms and immediate actions a loved one can take to comfort the dying person. Our Food, Fluids, and Feelings: Understanding the Body’s Needs at the End of Life pocket guide provides clear yet gentle information about how the body shuts down and the reasons to avoid pushing foods and fluids at this time in a person’s life.

The actions that seem like “little things” will be remembered. You can equip your EOL team with these tools and more by visiting us here. Thanks for all of the little things you do that make a world of difference in the lives of those you serve. ❤️

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