If someone is actively dying, it means they will pass away within hours or days. Some signs of imminent death include lower oxygen levels, slow pulse rate, signs of terminal agitation, or near-death awareness. It isn’t always easy to witness an end-of-life transition. Doulas like me have experience sitting vigil and helping create a peaceful and loving space for this sacred time.
You can, too.
How to Sit Vigil
How do I hold space with someone who is at the very end of their life? More than training or experience, sitting vigil requires me to trust myself, let go of expectations, and be open to whatever it is I’m supposed to learn.
You can do this by leaning in, staying curious, and exploring some of these options.
Take a Moment
Before walking into the room, center yourself. This helps you mentally prepare for sitting vigil with a dying person.
Close your eyes for a moment. Breathe deeply and clear your mind. Take however long you need to simply relax and feel calm.
Open Yourself to the Unknown
Ask for help or guidance in whatever way feels right. A religious tradition you follow may provide the right words.
This can be a prayer or mantra.
If you find comfort in meditation, set your intention. Again, be open to whatever it is you’re supposed to learn.
This Isn’t About You
Remember this isn’t your experience. You sit vigil to support someone else through theirs. Shed any judgments, expectations, or agendas before you walk into the room. This isn’t about you.
Become familiar with ways our bodies slow down so that you won’t be alarmed by what’s normal, common, or natural.
Observe and Pay Attention
Stay focused on the dying person and loved ones. Listen to those who need to feel heard. When I’m sitting vigil, I pay attention to non-verbal cues if my client can’t talk or communicate during this tough time.
Listen to yourself, too. Just listen.
Sit still and do nothing. Remember to breathe. Do not tell stories about how others did this or give opinions unless asked.
What you think and what you would do is irrelevant.
Follow the Vigil Plan
If my client has made their wishes known, I abide by those directives. This can include reading prayers, poems, or books. Playing soft music in the background. Lighting candles or incense. Whatever they said they wanted at this time, I make that happen.
This space is their haven.
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Dying people sleep most of the time. They might not acknowledge your presence or appear happy to see you while sitting vigil. They may not even be aware that you’re in the room. This is natural and does not indicate anything other than death is near.
Keep Yourself Centered with Love
Sitting with a dying person and keeping love in your heart is all that’s needed. You are enough. Just you, loving someone while walking them home.
Respond to sorrow with “That sounds hard” or “Can you tell me more.” Sometimes just looking someone in the eyes and nodding is enough.
Ask if they want you to hold their hand.
You aren’t there to fix anything. Therefore, look beyond the physical deterioration. See their humanity and exhibit compassion.
Remember the “Ring Theory”
Comfort in…dump out. Talk about your feelings or vent with people removed from this experience. Do not unload on anyone in that room or fellow vigil sitters.
Care for Yourself
Take breaks. You’re not helping anyone if you’re not caring for yourself first. Eat healthy meals and drink plenty of water.
Get outside for a few minutes to breathe or take a walk.
Dying people sometimes wait until they are alone for a few moments, and then quietly slip away. This is okay. Give them some space, even if you just go into another room for a few moments.
Keep it Positive
We believe that “hearing” is the last sense to go. Since a dying person can often hear us, talk to them about happy memories. Tell them you love them. Give them permission to leave if that feels right.
Trust yourself. If you want to talk to the nurse or have questions for your death doula, try to discuss those in another room.
Show Up Without Judgment
Anticipatory grief happens before death occurs and can look different for everyone. Let loved ones grieve in a way that feels comfortable for them. Honor yourself and others with grace and acceptance.
While sitting vigil with a dying person, you are companioning them as they pass away. It helps to remind yourself that this is their journey. Their experience. It isn’t easy, but you can provide so much comfort just by sitting silently with someone in need.
You may think, “I can’t do this.”
I’ll show you how.