How to be compassionate in an emergency
January 18, 2013 3:10 PM   Subscribe

My partner's mother is on death's door and I'm struggling to find the words to be supportive as I should without being vapid and trite. He's making difficult decisions about life support against his mother's wishes, etc. An illness of my own has me bedridden and unable to be at his side. Any advice on what to say/what not to say to comfort/console/support him given the circumstances would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
posted by blue t-shirt to Human Relations (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Just be yourself, and simply be open and available for whatever...a shoulder to cry on, an open ear to vent to, a pair of arms for a hug, a pair of legs to run an errand.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:16 PM on January 18, 2013

Just be available. An aunt once told me, a while after her husband passed away, "I don't expect people to know the words to say, I just don't want them to cross the street when they see me coming."

Sitting quietly with him when you can, making sure that he knows you're available.
posted by HuronBob at 3:22 PM on January 18, 2013 [9 favorites]

This would be a lot easier if I could be with him, but I can't.
posted by blue t-shirt at 3:26 PM on January 18, 2013

Nobody expects you to have the perfect thing to say. Your steady presence (does not have to be in person) and availability and support, no matter what his ups and downs, is what will matter most. Take your cues from him. Sometimes he may want to discuss something very emotional, sometimes he might be craving the normalcy of small talk about your usual thing. You're not going to mess this up.
posted by availablelight at 3:46 PM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

"I hate that I can't be with you / can't do more for you right now... Let me know if I can make some calls or do some internet research for you... Call me when you need to, I'll pick up the phone..."

Even being physically present isn't always necessarily helpful. Most of helping in these situations is listening, and taking everyday things off someone's plate. Like, making sure there is food in house (can you order delivery for where he is), making sure the bills are paid, making routine calls so that your loved one is spared from breaking down and having to explain in a blubbering voice to the phone company or the gardner that their mother is dying.
posted by vignettist at 3:58 PM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

You don't have to be PHYSICALLY available, but emotionally present and able. (Cellphone/text...etc.) Don't be afraid to ask for direction either. "What do you need/want? I'm right here. Perhaps I can...whatever(google/text/arrange/organize)...from bed."

When I've been through things similar to what your partner is facing and people asked if they could help or offer to just be there to listen, if needed, I always felt like..."I may ask, but your asking and offering is really enough and just what I need right now."

In situations like this, I know it's true for me, people forget to eat. I would google up some way of having some chicken soup or something similarly nurturing and loving delivered to him (maybe you know of something special that he might appreciate right now).
posted by snsranch at 4:11 PM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thinking back to my own experience of bereavement, and what would have been helpful from a distance…

"How are you doing?" And then listen, to whatever is said, with acceptance and compassion and no judgment.
"Do you need anything?" If anything they need is something you can coordinate, that would be one less thing weighing on them.
"When did you last eat? Have you been sleeping?" Encourage them to take care of their physical needs, even if the emotional ones feel overwhelming.
"Is there anything I can take care of from here?" There may be things you can look up or people you can contact.
"I love you."
posted by Lexica at 7:06 PM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Be a good listener.

As how his other relatives are doing.

See if there's anything you can do remotely for anyone in the family. You might be able to make calls remotely.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:54 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was there for the death of both my longtime girlfriend's parents, and all I can tell you is, be patient. Death can take a long time, and it can wear everybody down terribly. He may show a dark, childish side. He's losing his mom, and that has a way of bringing up a lot of very old hurts and making somebody feel terribly abandoned and vulnerable, like they're six years old and they got left behind at the mall and nobody is ever, ever going to come and get them.

Ask how he's doing, and really listen. Like some other people have said, do whatever you can to take care of the daily life stuff while he's busy and distracted. Give him hugs. If he's really down, you could ask if he wants to watch a movie together or something. Maybe it sounds odd, but it's possible he'd really like a couple of normal hours, not dwelling on this terrible thing happening in his life. If you feel up to it, go for a walk together. Be there for the hard stuff, but also try to offer him a little escape, a little sanctuary.

Make it clear that you're always there, that if he needs to call you at 3 AM, he should do it, and not worry about waking you up. You don't have to say just the right things, because there are no perfect things to say. Mostly, it's your job to listen right now, and be patient. Just do your best. Really, that's all you can do.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:43 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Things that (I think) my partner found helpful when their dad was dying in the States while I was in the Middle East:

Logistical thinking. I researched the new drug, the process of taking leave from school, the massage technique that might help with the pain, foods that might not hurt their dad's stomach. I sent them in concise, neatly laid out emails, without additional commentary, questions or concerns.

Open invitation to contact. Phone and computer on with the volume up, 24 hours a day.

Listening. An open invitation for sad texts, angry emails, crying on the phone. Not taking things personally, even when quite hurtful.

Quiet, non-nagging but consistant questions about their own needs. and the space for them to say that they were not sleeping and would not be sleeping and that all they had eaten was a piece of bread. I sent a short list of possible quick food items, and, knowing their dietary preferences, wrote a shopping list for someone else to use.

Contacting other members of the family. Just by email, to let them know I was thinking of them, letting them know I was "on call" if they needed anything. I was told later that this meant a lot, because some of the family members had fewer support options than others.

Giving explicit permission to not love me for a bit. In the hard moments, and even more in the aftermath of his passing, my partner didn't feel consistently connected to me, even when I was physically near. They were very worried about this, thought it meant that they were wronging me. Naming that, and saying that it was okay/normal, that they did not have a responsibility to love anyone but their family in those moments, that I was there to love and care for them and that they did not have to reciprocate, allowed them to focus on more important things.

The hardest one: I did not worry if I did not hear from them. There was a lot of pressure on the family to keep the world in the loop. So many people wanted to know what was happening. Honestly, I think the biggest relief they felt was my saying that while I cared very, very much for their father and their family, they should not worry if I did not know what was happening -- send emails or texts or call only when they wanted support, and not worry about the play-by-play. My partner was totally, completely immersed in the all-consuming process of shepherding a parent out of this world. I was the last thing on their mind, and permission to not think about me until something was needed, helped.
posted by femmegrrr at 5:30 AM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

My partner just lost his mom last October. Something that he said helped was telling him, "We'll get through this together." I wanted him to know he wasn't alone and that I would be there to help him in any way I could.
posted by i feel possessed at 6:16 AM on January 19, 2013

I just went through this in October with the death of my father. My partner was back home. Reiterating what others have said: be available 24/7 for communication, make that clear to him. Call back as soon as possible if you miss him. That was very important for me, I was having these meltdowns and needed to talk to someone who wasn't my family. Lexica has a great list of questions to ask. Take your cues from them, don't interject too much advice, storytelling, what happened to you that day, unless it seems called for. I found it comforting, for example, to hear how the pets were doing, but everything else I couldn't focus on unless it had to do with the immediate situation I was going through.
posted by nanook at 7:42 AM on January 19, 2013

The thing that I needed most when I was in a similar situation was someone who didn't treat me like I was broken, or like my life was falling apart; someone who knew the situation and still treated me normally. I wanted to talk about a TV show or the news or a book and not have the person be side-eyeing me wondering what I could possibly be covering up. I wanted to have a bit of the normal in my life. So if he starts these conversations with you, don't assume he's dodging the topic or not coping properly, just go with it.
posted by buteo at 11:49 AM on January 19, 2013

Be supportive - "Your Mom is so lucky to have you taking care of her." "I know this is hard for you; you're doing a terrific job."
Don't distract; minimize your current health concerns for now.
posted by theora55 at 12:35 PM on January 19, 2013

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