The Importance of Being Present to Someone Who’s Dying


When someone you love is slowly fading away, it creates a lot of anxiety. You feel you should “do” something and yet you can’t.

Over a period of more than ten years, my husband Tom slowly faded away both cognitively and physically. For the last four years he lived in a skilled memory care unit where he got excellent care. When I visited, I too often found myself focused on the little things — organizing his closet, cleaning up his magazines. It was hard to deeply relax and be present to him, especially because he was no longer a good conversationalist. I was always jumping up — to ask an aide about his shoes, to check on his hearing aid batteries, to tidy his flowers, to straighten a picture on the wall — all the little things that affect quality of life that family members do to care for their loved ones.

Meanwhile I wasn’t fully enjoying the gift of just being with Tom. One of the gifts of the dying process was that I learned how to savor the remaining time we had together.

How did I learn? Despite years of Quaker worship, centering prayer, and meditation practice, I was still jumping up, running around, and trying to control the little elements of a big uncontrollable situation. What helped the most was a therapist pointing out that anxiety fueled my actions. Uncomfortable as it was, I forced myself to still my body, quiet my tongue, and just sit. If I wanted to jump up, I paid attention to the sensations in my body, trying to relax tension where I noticed it, while breathing deeply, always trying to relax my abdomen. The key step to learning to be present was forming the intention to “be with” Tom in a way that he would find calm and restful.

I think of our last summer as “the summer of Tom.” I let everything else go and spent as much time as I could with him. By the end, he didn’t have much energy to chew. What he loved, though, was raspberries. I brought him fresh raspberries every day. His eyes would light up at the sight of the raspberries. After he finished his, he’d want to eat mine. I kept bringing him more and more raspberries. One day he ate two cups of raspberries!

A week before he died, a new doctor took one look at him and said, “Why are you so happy?” Tom’s eyes twinkled and he beamed back at her. She asked the question a couple more times. Tom couldn’t give her an answer, but I treasure the memory of her recognizing the beautiful life force in him and the gift of his presence to her.

Beauty is to be found in the present moment. The more we deeply relax into the present moment, the more beauty is to be found.

When we know we have to say goodbye to someone we love, it can help to savor our remaining time together. Tom and I always loved to eat our meals outdoors. That last summer, we ate dinner together every night on the covered veranda at the retirement community and enjoyed being outside together. Later that memory became a balm to my wounded and bereaved soul. We can’t keep our loved ones alive, but we can be present with them in simple ways that bring joy and beauty to all.

Lauri Perman lives a quiet life in Ferguson Township and enjoys nurturing her family and friends. Her husband Tom Ryan died in October 2017. This column is coordinated by www.ltlwys.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

This article was published in Centre Daily Times on December 26, 2020.