There is no easy way to face death and there are no easy answers for how to prepare. Yet, Drs. Joanne Lynn and Joan Harrold, in their book Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness provide equal measures of practical information and gentle insight. Their book prepares readers for the decisions they will need to face, where to look for help, how to ease pain and other symptoms, what to expect with specific diseases, and how the health-care system operates. It also provides advice on how to come to terms with dying. In the passage below the authors reflect on a common mistake, forcing your loved ones to eat. Be sure to check back later today for another excerpt.
In all cultures and throughout all history, offering food has been a sign of caring and hospitality. Our mothers made sure we were well fed. Most people enjoy eating with family and friends, especially on special occasions. In most religions, food is part of sacred rituals. It is no wonder, then, when someone we love is unable to eat and drink naturally, that we feel compelled to “feed” them in some way. It seems to be basic caring.
But as death approaches, you will not “keep up your strength” by forcing yourself to eat when it makes you uncomfortable. If eating is a social event for you, or providing food is one of the common ways of expressing caring in your family, your loss of appetite may be distressing to you and your loved ones. You might enjoy small amounts of home-cooked food — dishes that mean something special to you. However, you should also know that a decrease in appetite is natural, and eating less may increase, rather than decrease, comfort.
Since most dying persons are more comfortable without eating or drinking at the end of life, forcing food or liquids is usually not beneficial, especially if restraints, intravenous lines, or hospitalization would be required. Not forcing someone to eat or drink is not letting him “starve to death.”
The truth is, for those who are dying, the time comes when it might be more compassionate, caring, even natural, to allow dehydration to occur. Forcing tube feedings and IVs on dying patients can make the last days of their lives more uncomfortable.