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Stages of Dying, Stages of The Caretaker

by Dillon Woods


Being with the terminally ill can bring many positive things into our lives. It can, however, also bring on a feeling of oppressive despair that colors life in a tone of melancholy. Suddenly everything looks different.  Priorities change. You reevaluate everything. You see how short life is.  You want to sleep all the time or you get no sleep at all. You lose 15 pounds or you gain 15 pounds. Make no mistake about it: holding the hand of someone as they die is a very, very difficult thing to do.  The process wears many people down everyday

It is not surprising that the "deathwatch" often turns into an earnest, prayerful vigil for a swift end.  The journey also brings a variety of stages and emotions for the dying person.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, has carefully explained many of these. The stages of dying she focused on were denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. 

In my observation, it is important to remember that these stages do not always occur in every case.  If they do all occur, they are in no way sequential or predictable.  Some may be stuck on one stage for 90% of their time.  More often, however, people go back and forth between a few of the stages. 

As a loved one or caretaker, it's important that you do not judge a stage as good or bad.  It is what it is: a stage, a moment.  Focus on how you can support the person at whatever stage they find themselves and avoid tampering with that stage or their defense mechanisms. In one stage, someone may feel a tremendous amount of anger towards the situation. In another stage, they may turn to religion and hope to strike a deal with "God".

In addition to this, I have found that a significant number of people go through yet another stage in which they feel strengthened when they nurture their inner spirit. They do this in a variety of subtle activities: taking time to notice the beauty of nature, taking time for meditation, consciously appreciating the kindness of people in their lives, relating to people in a more genuine way, and speaking to loved ones and to God with deeper sincerity.  These are all soulful expressions of a healthy, genuine, and flourishing spirituality. I call this stage "connecting."


Most people aren't comfortable with end of life issues. In working on your own acceptance of these issues, your helping someone through the process and your being-helped by the process will begin to intersect. If you have someone in your life that is very ill now, you may think you are here to help them at the end of their life.  The truth is, this experience will do more for you (in helping you grow spiritually and emotionally), than you could ever do for anyone who is dying. I strongly believe the best way to work on spiritual growth is to help and be with someone through the dying process. Be there with your heart and you will never be the same. Here are some stages you might go through as a caretaker.


Often when someone begins helping a terminally ill person, they begin with a sense of insecurity. "Will I know what to say or do? Do I have the energy or time this will demand?" 

The Honeymoon

After moving beyond fear and getting a few weeks under your belt, a feeling of confidence may fill your days. "It feels good to do things for others."  There is often a feeling of honest connection and closeness with the ill person. This often brings a strong feeling of self-esteem as you realize how good it is to help someone in such a situation.

The Roller Coaster

Some days you get home and literally collapse from exhaustion, or perhaps the patient's depression rubs off on you. By now, your bonding with the patient has solidified, and you may be sharing in their headaches, stress, and tension. This is when it's most important to focus on self-care.

Letting Go

There comes a time when the caregiver needs to let go. After taking such an intense journey with another human being, it is understandable that this is a very difficult thing to do. Maintaining a high level of care for the patient, while at the same time being mindful of your own self-care is very important. Take time to process your feelings by writing them out in a journal, talking with family and friends or joining a support group. More than ever, you need support at this time.

Relief & Guilt

Once the ill person has died it is common to have conflicting feelings. "I'm so relieved this is over." is quickly followed by "What am I saying?!"... Which is then followed by, " I wish she was still here."  Or "I really miss him."  Everyone's timetable for processing feelings of grief and loss is different. Don't be too hard on yourself and try not to set a limit as to the amount of time it will take to heal. There is no "normal" number of days or weeks or years.

 Excerpt from Where Souls Meet: Communicating With the Terminally Ill by Dillon Woods (Windermere Publications, Los Angeles, CA)

2000 Dillon J. Woods. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

To find out more about Dillon Woods and his book, click here.

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