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Legal-Ease: Together Again — Comforting the Terminally ill

By December 16, 2022January 17th, 2023No Comments

Judd Matsunaga

“Together Again” is a song written by Janet Jackson, singer, songwriter, actress and dancer, to a friend who had recently died of AIDS, as well as AIDS victims and their families worldwide, as stated in the liner notes of “The Velvet Rope” (1997).

“I wanted to do a song that was uplifting, rejoiceful,” said Jackson, “I do believe that life doesn’t end here. That they’ve gone into another life. And that I will see them again.”

If you are caring for someone you love at the end of his or her life, talking with him or her about the future, including death, is important, albeit difficult. Accepting death requires tremendous strength. Yet, the experts say that most people who are confronting death find comfort in sharing concerns and having an opportunity to prepare for the tough decisions that they might face in the future.

Although painful in so many ways, a serious illness offers you time to say, “I love you,” to share your appreciation and make amends. When death occurs unexpectedly, survivors often regret not having had a chance to do these things. Dr. Ira Byock, author of “Dying Well,” suggests that people with serious illness and their families have conversations with each other that include four statements: “I love you,” “I forgive you,” “Forgive me” and “Thank you.”

These early conversations, difficult as they are, will help you both to face harder times, when they come.

Talking about the future, including death, with someone you care about is important and provides a valuable opportunity for connection and emotional healing.

Raising these issues can help in multiple ways. For most people, “unspeakable” issues are the most frightening, and opening the door to talking about them makes them less scary. Airing your concerns can also relieve loneliness, making you and your loved one feel closer and can allow you to share your strength and courage.

You may find that your loved one has been stifling numerous fears — such as the fear of leaving friends and family, losing control, becoming a burden or leaving tasks and plans unfinished. Sharing such fears and expressing beliefs about death can help people feel less overwhelmed. Talking can help reduce some of the sadness and anxiety that people with serious illnesses inevitably experience. It can also diminish physical pain, which is aggravated by fear.

The assurance that others will be able to carry on — perhaps to help children grow up or to fulfill another shared dream — may offer enormous relief. Remember that living, even in the shadow of death, is still living, and there are opportunities for growth, connection and emotional healing.

Following are some strategies for making the most of this time taken from Harvard Medical School’s “Special Health Report — Grief and Loss.”

(1) Discuss Important Questions. Your loved one needs to tell you what type of care he or she wants as the illness continues to unfold. Here are some of the questions that should be addressed:

  • If time is short, how do you want to spend your remaining days, weeks or months?
  • What are you willing to go through for the chance of having more time?
  • What is so essential to your well-being that you wouldn’t want to be without it?
  • What are your fears and worries about what is ahead?
  • How will you talk with your kids about your illness?
  • How do you make sure your family’s needs are honored?
  • Do you want treatment aimed at keeping you alive as long as possible, regardless of the side effects? Or do you want to focus on comfort in your last days?

(2) Let Your Loved One Teach You. A person with a serious illness frequently feels helpless. Being able to impart useful information helps counter the sense of diminishment that comes with an illness and can be therapeutic for the person who is sick. Ask your loved one about practical things — where the key to the safe deposit box is kept, for example, or how to make a favorite family recipe. Encourage him or her to share important values and beliefs about how to live a good life.

(3) Acknowledge the Uncertainty. Most family members continue to hope for a good outcome, and those hopes and wishes may make it hard to see what truly lies ahead. But at some point, you need to prepare for the possibility that things won’t turn out the way you hope. Talking about and making plans for the eventuality that your loved one may not survive does not mean that hope is gone or that you are giving up.

Rather, it will help you support your loved one in case things go poorly and help you be prepared for what comes.

You may have worries about how to cope when you’re alone, or feelings of being abandoned. These are normal. Talk with your partner about them.

(4) Talk With Your Religious Leader or a Hospice or Hospital Chaplain. Priests, rabbis and other religious leaders can offer real comfort to believers. Even people who do not regularly attend religious services may turn toward their faith as an illness progresses.

This brings me full circle back to Jackson’s song “Together Again.” Is she right? Here’s what Billy Graham, “America’s Pastor,” said: “I am often asked this question — and my answer is always a resounding YES” (Source: “The Heaven Answer Book” by Billy Graham).

But it is important to point out that Graham wasn’t talking about being a reincarnated being, how would you recognize your loved ones? According to Graham, the Bible clearly indicates that our identities will remain unchanged. “This is why it’s so important for us to tell our loved ones about Christ. Nothing is more wonderful than for our families to share in this great hope of being part of the heavenly family.”

Judd Matsunaga is the founding attorney of Elder Law Services of California, a law firm that specializes in Medi-Cal Planning, Estate Planning and Probate. He can be contacted at (310) 348-2995 or judd@elderlawcalifornia.com. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Pacific Citizen or constitute legal or tax advice and should not be treated as such.