Resolving Personal Conflict with Someone who is Dying

I am very grateful to my good friend Adam Shaw for the opportunity to integrate his videos of tips about important things to consider when someone close to us is dying. Adam has years of experience of working as a nurse with people close to dying and the families and friends who attend their bedside while in hospital. Adam’s work as ‘The Heart Guy’ is an unconventional approach to heart health that looks beyond the physical health issues involved in heart health towards the emotional, psychological and spiritual contributions to having a healthy heart. Living a life that is true to ourselves and our wishes, and in turn true to others is as much a factor in being healthy as whether we eat the right food or go to the gym, possibly more so. If we are not content within ourselves, what use is it to just have a ‘clinically’ healthy body?

One of the important issues that Adam has addressed in his own life and I feel lucky to have been able to do in my own is that of resolving personal conflict with someone who is dying. Adam’s videos below, none of which are more than 2 minutes long, give tips for important things to consider if you are experiencing someone close to you who is dying.

I encourage you to watch the videos and I have then given comments relating to my own experience of being with my father while he was dying and from a ‘professional’ perspective of why Adam’s tips are so appropriate from a conflict resolution perspective.

Hearing is the last sense to go in the dying process…….

Knowing that hearing is the last sense to go is reassuring to me as I was lucky enough to have been with my father on the last day of his life, and while he seemed unconscious and had been unable to speak coherently for days I was able to say to him any of the things I hadn’t already said during the last year of his life since he found out he had secondary liver cancer. I was able to simply sit with him and say that I loved him and that he’d been such a great father to me, to thank him for being such a kind man and that if I were to have children I’d love to be like him as a father.

I’m glad that my commitment, alongside my Mum who was also present, was to speak to him rather than about him, even though he couldn’t coherently respond to what we said.

From a conflict resolution perspective, what Adam describes is a treating of the person with respect, keeping them involved in ‘ownership‘ of what is happening around them even if they don’t seem to be able to respond to us. Adopting an adult-adult relationship with them rather than a ‘parent-child’ one even while we are still caring for them or others are. It can be very easy to treat people who are ill or vulnerable ‘like children’ and keeping that respect for them is very important in the last days of a relationship with a dying person.

Say what you need to say…..

On seeing this video, I’d encourage you to consider how you might feel if you were reaching the end of your life and relatives were present with you, some of whom you might have had some temporary or longer term difficulties with. What would you want to say to them? What you want to hear from them? What would help you to be at peace? Adam refers to saying things that may even be about some difficulties you’ve had with the person dying. Some of us struggle even with saying the nicer things so it can be a challenge to express the more difficult feelings we have had towards someone. And sometimes we recognise that there’s not a lot of difference between the two from our own point of view. They are about our expression of our feelings. We do it for ourselves, we are taking ownership of our part in the relationship and how we feel about it. In this way it’s important as much as possible to speak for ourselves, about ourselves and how we feel so that we are expressing what is inside us rather than speak about the person dying and what we think of them……..there’s not a lot they will be able to do about our perception of them and they may not have wanted to do anything about that even if they weren’t dying. This is often called using ‘I’ statements, and can be very powerful in resolving any conflict whether with someone dying or not. We are expressing this for our own benefit (as we do everything, though we may sometimes tell others it’s for theirs!), so it’s important it works for us. Using I statements help to release what we think and feel, you-statements often leave a sense of dependency and expectation of the other person to change, as if we are, if they are criticisms, trying to manipulate the person through guilt or shame.

I remember speaking at my Dad’s funeral, saying that I felt ‘lucky’ in a way that his dying occurred over a period of time – while he may sometimes have wished it had come sooner, such was his pain – because it gave me time to say the things I wanted to. I was able to write a poem to him and one about him – he worked in forestry – and share it with him. Those who have a relative die suddenly never get the opportunity to say the things they may have wanted. I guess a lesson from that is to do our best not to have things that we haven’t said to others, to be as open and honest with ourselves and others while we, and they, are still alive. This doesn’t mean we can’t still make peace with ourselves about a relationship that we had with someone who has died, but if we get the opportunity to do it with someone who is dying before they die, what an opportunity that period offers us. The person is available, we are with them, it is a situation unburdened by the frequent demands of daily life. A time in which we can say much of what we hadn’t been able to before. As with all unresolved conflict it becomes an opportunity for learning, connection and insight, even with those who are dying…….or more correctly, within ourselves about those who are dying.

The last burst of energy – treat it as a rare gift…..

My Dad sat bolt upright in bed seconds before he died. I left to get a nurse but when I returned he had passed away with my Mum at his side. If I hadn’t said the things I wanted to before that moment, I guess I may have regretted not staying to say what I wanted to, then, but now I feel glad that it was just my Mum and my Dad together in the last moments. Adam says that this last burst of energy can last up to a day or two, so often there will be much more time available to speak to the person.  In some ways this reminds me of mediation or conflict coaching situations where the most important things someone wishes to discuss come up in the last moments of the session. They take the opportunity to finally say what is of most importance to them. It’s great that they do – “Better out than in”.

Adam describes this burst of energy as a ‘rare gift’. I’m left to wonder what is it that means we don’t treat our other moments with a person as a rare gift to say what we need to, whether they are dying or not? How much do we suppress what we want to say, whether complimentary or difficult, and are only reminded of the gift of opportunity for saying what we want when someone is close to dying?

Be honest and sort YOUR shit out…….

Finding a way of being at peace with someone is a gift and a lesson that can transfer to the rest of your life, whether that person is dying or still very much alive. But doing it with someone who is dying can be a lesson in prioritising, seeing the relative importance of things, that can then transfer to our understanding of what is important to our own peace, and in turn the peace we support in others through ‘sorting our own shit out’, in many other areas of our lives.

My own experience of being with my Dad helped me to see death in a very different way – much less fearful of its inevitability, an understanding that I have no control so it will come when it comes. I can’t know I won’t be petrified if I get told it is ‘on its way’……but of course I know that it is coming anyway, all of us do.

I also learned that treating death in a matter of fact way rather than ‘seriously’, or treading on eggshells, made it much lighter. I sat with Dad on some hospital visits and cried with laughter as we talked about things relating to our family. I sat and massaged his feet that were swollen due to being in bed and immobile, and we talked as I did so – often however it would send him into a rare undisturbed sleep.

I remember committing to just listening to what he wanted rather than tell him what others might have said was ‘good for him’, or that he ‘needed to do’. He was dying. The most important thing for me was to be with him, in that moment, present with him. Not speaking for him, not telling him what I thought he should do for my benefit.

I say to people who care for people who are dying, if you really love that person and want to help them, be with them when their end comes close. Sit with them – you don’t even have to talk. You don’t have to do anything but really be there with them. – Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

Resolving personal conflict with someone who is dying is, of course, like all conflict resolution, a resolving of that conflict within ourselves. In the case of someone dying we can have a much clearer understanding that they are not going to change in the way we may have been fighting to get them to for years. We see them and ourselves more starkly, less up for a battle, more in touch with who we are. I remember a sense of deep peace much of the time I was with my Dad during his last days and this was because so much that I may have felt was ‘important’ I saw wasn’t. What was previously ‘important’ was the ‘shit’ I’d not let go of or sorted out and was trying to control when there was no control possible. It just is as it is. Why is it so often so hard to just see that and accept it?

“All the best son” – the last words my Dad was able to say to me.


Derek John Sharland 1927 - 1998
Derek John Sharland
1927 – 1998



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