Preparing for the Death of an Aging Loved One

What can we do to help guide our extended family - siblings, spouses, and grandkids - through the difficult experience of losing an elderly loved one? It's obvious that my mother is very near the end. How do we prepare for her eventual death? Do you have any practical suggestions?

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When it becomes clear that a loved one is not going to recover from a terminal illness, it’s not unusual for friends, family members and the patient to avoid the subject. Feelings of guilt, confusion, depression, and denial are common reactions to the near approach of the end. But the reality is that it’s important to discuss the topic of death – including end-of-life care and funeral arrangements – while your mother is still living. Including your mother in these arrangements is often a way to honor her, but one needs to approach these discussions gently, focusing on the desire to know her wishes in order to follow them.

You should also be ready to stand by your mother as she goes through the emotional stages of dying. These stages have been described as 1) shock and denial; 2) anger; 3) bargaining; 4) depression; and 5) acceptance. Not everyone passes through every stage, and they are seldom experienced in this order. Death is a mental and spiritual as well as a physical process, and she’s going to need your support as she deals with the reality that her life is drawing to an end. The Bible tells us that there is “a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2), and we need to take its words seriously. This may be the last chance you get to talk about your fears, make your apologies, express your love and appreciation, and help your mom direct her thoughts and feelings toward eternity and her relationship with the Lord.

As death draws near, it’s vital that you and the other members of the family take time to say good-bye to your mother in ways that are natural for each person. Sometimes a dying person lingers because she is worried about her spouse or children and how they will cope without her. This is the time to express sentiments of love and thankfulness to your elder and give her permission to let go. It’s best, however, to avoid reliving painful memories or discussing family controversies, activities which may bring more pain than peace.

If you’re able to be on hand when she takes her last breath, by all means take advantage of the opportunity. But keep in mind that there is nothing “magical” about those final minutes. Many people are burdened with guilt because they could not be present at the time of death, when in actuality they might have served their loved one more effectively by focusing on her last years, months or weeks. Make it a priority to spend precious moments with your mom now – while there is still the opportunity.

If you and the family can be together in your mother’s final hour, let your words be meaningful and few. Speak to her slowly and distinctly. Sing her favorite hymns and read to her from Scripture. If any sounds can reach the ear now, if any words can touch the heart, God’s words can. Prepare yourself for this experience by reviewing the promises the Lord has given us in the Bible. For example, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). If you aren’t sure whether your mother knows Christ in a personal way, consider praying that God will give you wisdom and a door of opportunity to share His love with her while she is still alive (Colossians 4:3; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Be as prepared as possible for the onset of grief once the threshold is finally crossed. Everyone grieves in his or her own way, and one way is not necessarily better than another. Be sure that within your circle of family and friends you keep an accepting attitude toward each other as you grieve. Your reaction may be immediate or delayed, and you may experience both relief that the suffering is ended and guilt for feeling that way. In addition to sorrow that your mother is gone, you may experience confusion about the future and your own identity. You may wonder who you are now that you are no longer a caregiver. In the midst of these jumbled emotions, remember that grief, though very real and very difficult, is and ought to be different for the Christian. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope of the resurrection: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

If you’d like to discuss these thoughts and suggestions at greater length with a member of our staff, call our Counseling department for a free consultation. They’ll be happy to assist you in any way they can.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones

Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2002, Focus on the Family.

This information has been approved by the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.

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