Death, Dying and Difficult Relationships

By Satyam Brown
Someone recently asked me at a dinner party what gems  of wisdom I had learnt about living and dying in my career as a palliative care counselor and social worker. I considered giving  a standard answer about putting less energy into your career and more into spending time with loved ones. However the most honest answer I could give is that we will die as we have lived. Not every death is beautiful, nor does it bring peace. Just like life, it can be messy, and when relationships are complicated, there can be ambivalent emotions that don’t always get resolved neatly in time.
Whatever skills, traits, coping strategies and habits we have invested time and energy in developing throughout our life will be the same ones we have when we are dying. Wisdom, kindness and enlightenment do not suddenly appear at the end of life. This applies to the grieving as well as the person going through the end of life process. More common is that many of our strategies for coping with life stress are based on distraction, avoidance and denial which keep love at a distance. As they were unhelpful during life these strategies tend not to be too helpful when you are stressed by facing the absoluteness of your own death.
I often have the opportunity to work with families during and after their loved ones death, and all too often they discuss their hope and regret that they didn’t have resolution to long standing relationship issues with the deceased. If the relationship was fraught, often they hope for an apology or resolution.  Some people hope for their suffering to be validated by the person they believe was in some way responsible for contributing to their pain. If their loved one didn’t have the emotional skills and comfort with vulnerability to work it out whilst living then it is unlikely they will when they are pressured by death.
Our main exposure to death in Australia is through books, TV and film who tend to use death as a means for closure and to wrap up the narrative neatly. This tends to present a false hope for the same when we are fumbling through the confusion that is experiencing a loved one dying. My advice often to loved ones is not to leave it to the last minute to say what needs to be said. The dying are mostly unresponsive for days before their death.  Most people prefer to have their loved one able to respond and give some acknowledgement of what is being said.
It can be deeply healing to express mixed emotions, and sometimes families draw closer together as the veil between life and death becomes more transparent. Finding a way to convey deep feelings is a significant expression of emotional intimacy and love. But most importantly don’t expect anything in return. The person dying has a lot on their plate to digest. The goal should be to say what needs to be said, if that is what you need. Any apology or validation is a bonus.