Communicating with the Patient
My mom has a lot of pain and is breaking down emotionally. She says she wants to die. I don't know how to help her. What can I do?

It can be very hard to watch someone suffer. Physical, emotional and spiritual suffering are intertwined, and they affect each other. All aspects of suffering need to be acknowledged and addressed.

Your mom’s pain is likely a major factor in the distress she’s feeling. It may be this pain that’s making her say she wants to die. Pain can be so overwhelming that it can overshadow everything else in a person’s life. If the pain is treated and eased then she can begin to focus again on other things.

You may have to advocate for your mom with the health team. Be her voice, as she’s finding it hard to deal with things. You can ask to have her pain assessed and controlled, so she can find some relief and improve the quality of her life. Discuss your concerns with your mother's health care team. Some health care providers specialize in pain management or palliative care, and can make suggestions that may help ease her pain. Controlling the pain will not suddenly make everything better, but it may help her focus on other aspects of her situation, such as her emotions.

People who are dying are deeply affected by their decreasing ability to care for themselves. It can lead them to rethink their own sense of who they are, and make them feel numb, sad, helpless, disappointed or angry. All these reactions are normal, and family members sometimes report similar feelings. Your mom may be experiencing depression. Her health care team needs to assess her to see if she is showing symptoms of depression and can offer treatment if needed.

There are no specific words that will alleviate your mom’s distress. Yet there’s much you can do to give her comfort. Sometimes it’s just by being physically present.

You likely can make the biggest difference by being attentive and listening to your mom. This tells her many things: that you’re there to support her, that you’re attuned to her needs; and that you’re available for her. It may help to tell your mom that you’re there to support her. Sometimes people don’t say it out loud. They assume their support and intentions are obvious, but it’s important to put it into words. Your mom may get comfort from hearing words like this: "I love you and I care about you. I don’t like to see you going through this. I want you to know that you’re not alone, and I am here for you whenever you need me." This also leaves the conversation open and lets your mom talk about the emotional and spiritual issues she may be struggling with. Your mom may find it hard to talk about such things with family, and you may want to call on a member of the health care team, such a social worker or spiritual care provider. If you mom has had her own connection with a spiritual leader in the past, it may be helpful to involve this person in her care.

Finding Meaning and Purpose during a Health Crisis