End-of-Life Expert Barbara Karnes Explains How to Handle Family Stress and Drama

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“Do you have any advice for handling family drama when someone is dying?” Here’s what Barbara Karnes suggests.

Like it the old fashioned way?

Barbara Karnes answers Debbie V.’s question about family drama during end-of-life care.

Debbie asked: Do you have any advice for handling family drama when someone is dying? I had a patient who was dying of cancer. His wife and adult children spent his last days arguing with each other about every little thing. I know this stressed out the patient and made his last days very uncomfortable. What do you do in these situations?

Barbara’s answer:

The challenge of approaching end of life can bring a family together or not. Sometimes the stress brings everyone together, but the opposite is true also, and all the demons go on display.

In the last days of life, the dying person is so removed from his body that he really doesn’t respond to or even care what is happening. It is in the months and weeks before death that the discord can be disturbing to him.

There is the possibility that this discord is not brought on by the stress of the father dying. Maybe this just who they are and how they normally interact with each other.

What can you do?

Talk with the family. Suggest they have their disagreements somewhere other than in front of the patient. Their father dying is not about them. It is about him and how they can best support him during his final days. Suggest a truce until he is gone.

The bottom line, however, is — this is their experience. We, as healthcare workers, can suggest and recommend, but then we stand back and let the people live through their experiences even if we would not make the same choices.

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