Most people experience depression at some point in the dying and grieving process, though it may take different forms.11
When someone is dealing with the death of a loved one, a period of mourning is an expected reaction to the loss. Alternatively, when a person is in the process of dying themselves, the mourning is preemptive.
Anticipatory grief can involve more than just the loss of their life; as death gets closer and they become more dependent on others, a person may mourn the loss of their independence and their identity.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. While it’s usually described as a person being “at peace” with death, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an easy stage to be in and that a person will feel relieved or unafraid once they reach it.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone in the last stage of grief to feel nothing at all, and the numbness may help people cope with death.12
It can take a long time to reach a stage of acceptance and reaching acceptance doesn’t mean that a person won’t return to a previous stage if their situation changes.
Having a support network of family and friends at each stage of the grieving process can provide guidance and comfort, but it’s also not uncommon to seek professional help when facing a loss.
People commonly turn to grief counseling, support groups, and clergy to help them process and cope with their grief.
Another emotional aspect of dying is the concept of “social death,” which can start long before a person experiences any physical signs of imminent death.13
When someone knows they are likely to die within a specific timeframe, such as after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, it inevitably affects their social life.
In some cases, a person withdraws from others. If they are very ill, they may be forced to leave work or school and may lose social connections as a result. They may also isolate themselves from friends and family as they try to “come to terms” with their imminent death and take time to reflect on their life.
Sometimes, a person who is dying may become isolated not because they are withdrawing, but because the people around them are not sure what to say or do.
Friends and loved ones may find it difficult to acknowledge the reality of death (especially when it reminds them of their own mortality) and might avoid being in a situation that forces them to confront it.
Whether or not a person has a wider network of community support also makes a difference. People living in rural areas or far from their families may not have many social resources and may not be well enough to travel elsewhere.
Similarly, older adults living in long-term care facilities and nursing homes may experience “social death” for years if they rarely have visitors.13
If you are caring for someone who is dying, social support is an important part of caring for yourself throughout the process.
If you have never been in a situation where you have had to consider death, you may be overwhelmed by the need to process your feelings about both the loss of your loved one as well as the reminder that you will die someday.
If you have experienced the death of someone close to you in the past, caring for a loved one going through that process may bring back old memories and grief.
While the needs of your loved one who is dying may feel demanding at times, remember that your own well-being is still your priority.
If you are emotionally and physically well, you will have the energy, strength, focus, and patience to be fully present with your dying loved one and attend to their needs. Still, it is not easy to deal with a loved one dying, and being their caregiver, so it’s important to also care for yourself and get help.
One inspirational sentiment about death I keep coming back to is a story about a little boy who passed away. The little boy’s mother said a prayer that went: “Dear Sam, Thank you for the honor of being your mom. We had a lot of fun. I love you. Please pray for us.”
I return to this story because I appreciate this way of thinking about death. I hope that, when faced with the death of a loved one, I will be able to reach this level of peace and understanding. It just seems healthy to me. —Mark Stibich, PhD