Peg Nelson is a nurse practitioner experienced in palliative care, helping patients and their families deal with dying. In an interview, she describes what her role can teach us about our lack of control:
Once you admit to yourself that dying, like birth, is not something you can control, it frees you up to use your compassion to help people. For example, we can usually make dying patients comfortable and help them find ways to make the most of their remaining days. We are less like surgeons performing an operation ourselves than coaches helping someone else. And there is a lot we can control. We can always listen—really listen—to patients and families. We can always be with them—really with them—in the moment. And we can always care—really care for them—throughout the experience.
What she says to those just beginning to grapple with their impending deaths:
There are some phrases that we tend to use a lot. I can’t tell you how many times I have said, “I wish things were different,” or “I’m so sorry.” Of course, you must not only say it but mean it. And even in the midst of shock and anger and despair, there are always healing things you can say. For example, I often hear myself saying, “You have such a beautiful family,” or “I am feeling a lot of love in this room.” It is not only pointless but harmful to pretend that dying is not happening.
On the other hand, if you do it right you can help people find lasting meaning—even something beautiful in it. More important than anything we say is to listen—asking questions, being quiet and present.