8 Ways to Stay Present When Someone Close Is Dying

When you learn that you are about to face the loss of someone close to you, you enter a very delicate and intense passage of time. It is a time when you know seconds, hours and days count in a way that may not have before. You find nostalgia, memories, panic, grief, and bittersweet things all creeping in – if not gushing. You find ourselves hanging in that strange space where what once was, is, and will be all dawn on you – and that’s quite hard to get our heads around.

In this article I share suggestions to stay centred and present in the midst of such a turbulent, difficult time. I also share why any of this is important, as staying present is often the last thing on our minds at a time like this. The contents of this article are drawn from true stories.

Photo by Marcus Ganahl on Unsplash

Staying Present: Why

When we stand in the face of loss, a time like this greatly challenges our capacity for clarity, stability, empathy and perspective. Functioning can sometimes become a challenge. In addition to that you may also face the fragile situation that requires you to make delicate choices. Perhaps you may be making decisions about withdrawal of care, alternative care, visitations where you want to feel brave, or having conversations where you want to say the right things. If you come from complex family dynamics, you may also need to negotiate that with care.

Most of all, you almost always want to create an environment that carries an energy of dignity and grace. 

With so much at stake, how you navigate them depends on how well the underlying layers of your mind and body are functioning – you may be lost in the turbulence of the external situation, but remember, the outer experience can be determined by the inner. The outcome of how one passes can be influenced by how you keep your internal landscape. I say this from personal experience.

Without a commitment to stay present, you may travel to turbulent places, make misaligned choices, or run the risk of a traumatic bereavement. The effects can be long lasting. Buy by staying present, you create an inner possibility for dignity and grace which you naturally will carry – particularly towards the one who may need this most right now.

It is a delicate passage of time. I highly encourage looking after your wellbeing. There is no question you will be looking after others around you, so here are some ways to look after you at this time. Some of these suggestions may be possible and some not, I invite you to explore possibilities that ring true to you.

8 Suggestions – Staying Present When Someone Close To You Is Dying

1. Creating space.

It is a heavy time and your window of capacity may be significantly reduced. This means you may not have a lot of mental resources for functional tasks or work and you may need space to navigate things, make sense of internal storms, make difficult decisions, and negotiate things within family. Without the space to think clearly, you may run into high-intensity battle zones.

Creating space for yourself could include seeking additional support, delegating complex/challenging work without feeling guilty, booking/purchasing leaves, or taking regular timeouts. I would encourage looking at your options and not hold back on taking them. Wherever you need additional support, know that there are kind people out there who would be willing to support you, including people you least expect 🙂

At the time I had a difficult bereavement ahead of me, I battled through a complex work project thinking I had to work through it. When I finally opened up to my manager, he immediately relieved me of it, which was a big surprise to me. This kind gesture changed influenced my state of presence for the person who was dying and for those around them positively. Create your space, don’t hold back on seeking support to make this possible.

2. A day at a time.

Fearing about the future, predicting how you will manage, what life will look like, what will happen to others around you are natural turbulences. You may also find yourself thinking about the past – memories, nostalgia, “why didn’t I…”, or your last happy moment with them. These are natural images our survival mind flashes which can create a lot of anxiety.

The future is something you will navigate when you come to it, and it’s important to trust that you will have the resources you need when the time comes. For now however, it’s worth setting a mental boundary with yourself to feel more at peace, present and able to allow turbulent emotions move through.

Take one day at a time:

Think for today, plan for today, worry about today, grieve for today, delight in little things for today, collapse for today, cry for today, rage for today.
THIS day.

By creating a mental boundary, you reduce the chances of deteriorating mental and emotional health. You also tread this delicate time with a sense of space, presence, clarity. More than that, you allow your heart to break open and feel the grief just as it is, in its raw form. You get to experience love at its purest.

3. Slow and Intentional

The dawn of mortality is such a difficult one, that the impulse in us tries to run from the situation and we find ourselves speeding up to do more, fix more, solve more, think more. Deep down, it is because it’s such a hard reality to accept. Speeding up is, in some way, a coping mechanism by the brain to be in action so as to not have to feel the loss within.

Loss is a painful feeling that only asks to be felt- it doesn't ask to be fixed. 

Instead of speeding up, try slowing down. As if every motor movement mattered, you could engage with everything slowly, purposefully, intentionally – putting energy and intention into micromovement. This helps you invest your energy wisely and stay as close as possible to your present moment. You could allow every step, word, shower droplet, sip, bite to slow down – perhaps even reading this. In this way, you travel less towards places that may be too much for you, and that may not even be necessary for you to go to at this time. Slowing down allows you to navigate the reality of your present moment in a more graceful way. Compassion then, becomes a part of this difficult experience.

4. Hold the Facts Close

It’s helpful to distinguish between actual from potential, real from hypothetical – fundamentals of mindfulness. At a time like this, you may find your mind mixing them up. Then, in those instantaneous moments, you experience the worst potential possibilities to be true as much as the actual – i.e. we are experiencing that which is not as much as that which is true. This can feel incredibly overwhelming.

Mindfully look at the facts – repeatedly – so you don’t go into places that are too overwhelming at this time. What day is it? How are different family members today? Can you see their coping resources today? What facts are true about medical reports (vs fears you have about things going a certain way)? Repeatedly bring yourself back to the facts in the present moment. In this way, you return to ‘what is’  (as opposed to ‘what could be’ and ‘what might/must be’)  which allows you to act, think and be clear about things.

5. Actively seek Nourishment

I have spoken about slowing down and creating space. But how do you fill that space? Nourishment. Actively seek out comfort, connection, heart-nourishing resources. Nourishing activities help to expand your Window Of Capacity. You may find yourself turning away from nourishment, and a part of you may even feel undeserving of them at this time. But if you’re at your lowest, you wouldn’t be able to support or make clear choices that serve the bigger picture.

When my grandmother was unwell, one of the most useful and life-changing things I did was to understand death. The helplessness and powerlessness I felt transmuted and I learned a lot about my role in her death from afar (I was unable to travel to her at the time). I also did regular nature walks, spoke about things to people I trusted, read, meditated, kept myself centred and deeply contemplated life in a way that I never had before. As a result, I felt in touch with some profound truths which helped me trust the larger life process. This not only expanded my window of capacity at the time, but its effects echo even until today.

Offer yourself the nourishment you need at this time.

6. Honour basic needs

I have seen in people I work with and in my early years navigating grief that loss leads to our dismissing basic needs – we scrap on remaining food, forget to hydrate, stay locked in our minds and homes. This shrinks thinking and nervous system capacity which impacts the way you relate and make decisions.

Eat well, drink well, sleep well, move well. You will want to, because of the nervous system flops into its shutdown mode, but do it anyway to bring both body and mind back on.

Grief and loss results in our thinking capacity shrinking and our bodies correspondingly carry unseen burdens. You may feel this physically; in heaviness, increased/decreased heartrate, lack of sleep, eyes darting in hypervigilance, heavy feet, or slouching body. These are signs the body is in need of nourishment. Mortality and loss are very complex for our human minds and bodies to attune to. This means our threat response triggers off and many ‘systems’ within our bodies are hard at work.

Take care to honour your body’s needs through this time. Your thinking capacity, articulation of important words, acting agility, acceptance of grief, and decision making will come from a place of largeness when the body is well-nourished.

7. Minimising Distractions

Be on the lookout for things that tug at your attention at this time. There may be an activated sense of fear that drive you towards distractions.

A friend who kindly offered his story shared that when his father was terminally unwell, there was very little he could do and felt a great sense of powerlessness. He found himself checking his phone often restlessly and could not stop. Panic and hyperventilation were a big part of his experience. As panic escalated, it turned into rage and this rage eventually played out on someone close. It created an air of woundedness and pain for himself, for those close to him, and for his father.

The innocent act of tending to distractions not only make us hypervigilant, it also may activate our fear centres and possibly lead to unwanted reactions at a time like this. Take care of yourself, check in with yourself often, and check in with things that take you away from your centre. Create a peaceful inner environment, and the environment you will set for your loved one will be that of peace.

8. Keep an eye out for unhelpful old habits

You may find yourself slipping into old unhelpful habits at a time like this. They may even be habits you’ve invested years coming out of, only to find  yourself right in the midst of it. It’s important to understand that this is natural. Habits are essentially patterns that our bodies and nervous system have identified as “safe things to do when in trouble”.

These habits may be helpful or unhelpful, but habit-patterns do not understand this. 

Keep an eye out for these habits and substitute them with something nourishing instead. It also stops you from slipping into other traumatic patterns, if any. Keep yourself well-nourished and steady, and you’ll find yourself connecting with your loved one in ways you wish to be able to.

I hope you have found some useful. The truth is at a time like this, you may not be your best. But with some commitment, you have the capacity to turn a time as delicate and intense as this into a time of profound grace and wisdom. I’d encourage you not to undermine the ripple effects of this – your presence impacts your present, future, those around you, and most importantly the one who most needs you at this time.

A Little Bit on the Sciences

Understanding our Mental Health

Mortality is an incredibly complex concept for the mind, therefore we mentally go into survival mode i.e. our ‘safe mode’. In this mode, we loose access to the higher centres of our brain capable of perspective, understanding, planning. We also loose capacity to articulate well. We may find ourselves easily emotionally hijacked against our will, and this is because the protectiveness of our limbic brain (emotional survival brain) takes over. We may feel hypervigilant, consumed by thoughts, and lean towards ‘doing more’ as a way to cope. We may also find ourselves slipping into old habits. Due to the intensity of the situation, the brain activates old patterns that are familiar. We can expect some level of this to be natural and expected in the face of grief and loss, but the extent of this can minimised using the suggestions outlined above or using other ways that work for you.

Understanding our Physical Health

Sadness slows our metabolism. Our immune system is also ‘tuned down’ and therefore less able to defend our bodies. As a result, we may find ourselves falling ill quickly, recovering slower than usual. In addition to that, grief is an emotion that increases cortisol which then leads to a stress reaction. We may find ourselves in our fight and flight responses very often, which may show up in the way we converse, behave, speak, and even breathe (rapid/shallow breathing). The suggestions above should help with this to some degree.

A Note for HSPs and Empaths

If you’re a Highly Sensitive Person or an Empathatic person, you may pick up on many other emotions around you and find yourself overwhelmed by this. Your presence, grounding and centring are far more important now than ever. Due to your high level of ‘receptors’, HSPs and Empaths are likely to be in tune with subtler things unfolding at this time. You may find yourself ‘sensing’ the needs of your loved one, some very subtle needs which may be regarded as insignificant by others. Death is a process where one moves from gross to subtle (physical body to energy), and your heightened sensitivity towards the subtle cues may be quite important to trust at this time. Hence, your self-care and wellbeing are truly important, so your sensitive receptors are not dampened down.

Hope you’ve found the above useful.
Here’s wishing you warmth, courage, strength, and love at this time.

Additional Resources

Online Article: Cry, Heart, But Never Break
A written article by Brainpickings about the profound sadness of loss that is to be allowed rather than resisted, then folded into the wholeness of life, which continues to unfold. An illustration of a children’s book (lovely for adults too).

Online Documentary: Griefwalker.
A free documentary on the work of Stephen Jenkinson, whose work – drawn from Indigenious cultures – is to turn the act of dying from denial and resistance into an essential part of life.

Book: There’s More To Death than Dying by Lama Shenpen Hookham
Drawing on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of positively preparing for death throughout one’s life. A warm, readable and heartfelt exposition on the issues that surround death and caring for the dying.

Book: Death, an Inside Story by Sadhguru
A detailed book about profound aspects of death that are rarely spoken about, drawn from a Mystic’s Inner experience. Based on the Yogic Tradition.