When You Can’t Be With A Dying Family Member

Memorials and Remembrance / Memorials and Remembrance : Eleanor Haley


It’s a new world we live, one of the difficult restrictions that protect our health and safety. As we struggle to learn to live with so many things we never imagined, perhaps the hardest is not being together in times of illness and loss. With hospitals and hospices forced to restrict visitors, the ways that we know how to show love, care, and support at the end of life are being upended. We’re left asking what we are supposed to do when we can’t be with a dying family member. 

I can’t help remembering the morning my father died with a new-found guilt. He didn’t die one of those “good” hospice deaths, in the comfort of home. He was in a hospital bed, unconscious and on a ventilator. But we were able to be with him. We were able to spend weeks camped in an ICU waiting room, visiting him. Family and friends could come and go. We were able to gather at his bedside.

Now, isolated in my home hearing from readers and friends who are separated from sick family members and unable to hold traditional funerals, I am suddenly so grateful for that time in the hospital. What do we do now, when we can’t be together physically? How can we still feel connected? What does it look like to express love and care when can’t be in the same room, give a hug, or take someone’s hand? How can we feel close? What options are there for sharing memories, storytelling, and grieving together?

How many times have we typed on this site “there are no easy answers”? There are no easy answers. What works for one person won’t work for another. Something that works for one family will be all wrong for another. We asked you all last week what you were doing to be close when you couldn’t be together with someone who was dying. The responses were overwhelming. 


What to do when you can’t be with someone who is sick or dying

  • Move your phone calls to video calls. If the person you love is still well enough to take calls, take advantage of FaceTime, Skype, or any number of other video-chat services. For those who grew up in a smartphone world, this might be obvious. But if you grew up on a landline (or your loved one did) this might not be your go-to. Give it a try – it is amazing the added closeness that can be there, even through a screen. 
  • Hold video family-meals. If your loved one is still able to eat, set up a Zoom or other group video chat to all eat “together” at the time that they are eating. It won’t be the same as all being around one table, but you can still all break bread and share the usual dinner updates, stories, and memories.
  • Kick it up a notch by all making a family recipe or eating something the person who is sick loves. If you are going to eat together (and assuming at least one person is still allowed to visit and bring food), you can increase the connection by all deciding on the same recipe to make. A great choice is something the person who is ill loves or a traditional family recipe that you would be sharing if you were together. 
  • Find out what you can send or drop off. If your loved one is in a hospital, hospice, or nursing home, give a call and find out exactly what you are allowed to bring/send. Even if you can’t visit, you can still make their space more comfortable. Whether it is big fuzzy socks, photos, books, items from their home, cards, and letters, or anything else that might bring some comfort. Things big and small can go a long way. Consider all five senses – can you send things that stimulate each of them?
  • Create a playlist (or a family playlist). Use Spotify or any one of the many other music services out there to make a playlist of music the person loves. You can do this on your own, or you can create a shared playlist and invite others to add songs.  This is wonderful to do for the person who is ill, but it can also be a great thing to just connect as a family. It can help with boosting mood and increasing connection.  
  • Sing and play music together (in real-time). Now, this would neeeever work for my family, as singing and playing music is not our thing. But for those of you who are musically inclined, sing! Just because you are in different places it doesn’t mean you can’t all sing together from wherever you are – using Zoom, facetime, etc. Just make sure you use earbuds or headsets, so the mic on your computer/phone isn’t picking up other people singing at the same time. 
  • Record a song as a family for the person who is ill (or with your loved one who is ill). Now, this requires a family with some musical talent and a little time. But you can put together some pretty impressive songs and videos if you have people each record separately and then edit them together. This won’t be for everyone. But, if you have some musically talented folks with some editing know how, these videos might be an inspiration. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube about how to gather the clips and do the editing. Check out this school choir. They couldn’t gather together, so they created this virtual concert from the comfort of their bedrooms:
  • Create an “ethical will” for the person. This is a concept from Judaism. We learned about from neurologist Lisa Barns, who wrote a book on grieving her husband.  The idea is simple. Everyone shares something that they learned from the person that will stay with them forever. This could be anything from small things to larget thing. It could be anything from “be a generous tipper” to “how to make the best stuffed peppers” to “how to be open and accepting of others”. You could each record video or audio clips to be spliced tother, or share them on a service like Marco Polo (see below) or Facebook. 
  • Read to the person. Whether this is by phone or by sending an audio file, read a book to the person. Whether they are conscious or unconscious, this can allow a way to show them some care even if you are far away. 
  • Read a book as a family. Maybe it is just you who reads to the person who is sick. Or maybe you have multiple people record audio files of different chapters of the book. If you plan this by phone instead, you can rotate each day calling and reading chapters. 
  • Have a Netflix party. You might not be able to physically sit with your sick loved one to watch a movie, but you can still watch a movie “together”. Netflix Party lets people in multiple locations all join to watch a movie and use a real-time chat thread to talk about the movie as you watch. You can check out the details on how to have a Netflix party here. 
  • Create an oral history. If your friend or family member is still able to talk (and is open to it) use any video or audio service that allows you to record. We often use Zoom, but I am sure there are other options. Check out our post with tips and ideas for recording an oral history with a love done.
  • Check out Marco Polo. Okay, I’ll admit, as someone who doesn’t like social media, I love Marco Polo. It has been a lifeline for me in some of darkest times. It has helped me keep in touch with friends all over the world in a way that feels meaningful. Imagine if Facetime and Texting had a baby. You can create a thread with a group or just one other person, just like texting. But instead of texting you send each other video messages that you record. They can be short or long. You can record and send your video whenever you have time and they can watch it whenever they have time. The app saves your threads, so you can go back and watch and rewatch. Check it out on the Today Show.

We are sure you have TONS of other ideas, so leave a comment below to keep this list going! And as always, subscribe to get our new posts right to your email. 

Let’s be grief friends.

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29 Comments on "When You Can’t Be With A Dying Family Member"

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  1. Ken Johnston  May 19, 2020 at 10:32 am Reply

    I am struggling with being in Florida and my brother is severely ill with an unknown illness( thought it was Myasthenia Gravis , not so ) in NJ with his wife . He has deteriorated greatly . I have assisted from a distance .
    I am torn . I don’t think he will survive . I want to be up there assisting and providing support . However, I am fearful of the risk of flying with the Coronavirus. Of being in a Hot Spot for contracting it . I know my Physical aid will be minimal . I’m 74 . I do have a place to stay but I will definitely be more exposed to the virus there with caregivers coming and going .
    Questions Abound –
    Why am I going ?
    Can I do anything meaningful to change the result ? Would I be going for him ?
    Make myself feel better ?
    Guilt since I am not there ?
    What is in my best interest? My wife’s if I contract it going or while there ? Am I being selfish by going and if something happens to me , I hurt her ?
    Will I be able to deal with the grief when he is gone ?
    Any advice or thoughts would be appreciated.

  2. Satya  May 8, 2020 at 12:56 pm Reply

    Thanks for the article, but NONE OF IT is relatable when your sick father gets transferred to a long-term care home during a COVID-19 lock down. There was no ability to install a phone line nor drop off an iPad. He dies three weeks later (not of covid). And everything listed in this article could not happen in what turned out to be the last three weeks of life because the loneliness and abandonment of covid-restricted times killed him. New article please – one where there’s no phone nor online access.

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  3. Katy  April 14, 2020 at 5:34 pm Reply

    My husband is dying of cancer. I am allowed to visit but I do so alone and it is restricted but permitted due to our particular situation. It has featured periods of self isolation for myself or as I look after my young children during covid19.

    My role as solitary visitor is harsh. I can see a daily decline in this beautiful love of mine. Lucidity is now pretty infrequent. But beyond fleeting nurses coming in and out the chance to share the experience with another has been taken by the covid19 lockdown. I am however extremely grateful for my permission to enter the hospital.

    I was recommended a book which has been giving me comfort and solace. It is called With the End in Mind and it is by Dr Kathryn Mannix a palliative care consultant.

    It gives gentle and thoughtful examples of different people she has cared for dying and provides comfort with her explanations. The book has given me the chance to internally express my thoughts and understand a more of what was before me. I understand the drugs and pain control and the issues which may arise. This means I have better quality conversations to glean I formation from the busy staff nurse often in the phone.

    This time is hard. Everyone is worried, everyone is fighting their own battle. Be kind to yourself especially if you are or possibly may lose someone you hold dear. Go gentle on yourself. And if you can face what is a surprisingly light read, I recommend Dr Mannix’ book.

  4. Rochelle  April 13, 2020 at 11:26 pm Reply

    My Mom passed away on April 10th. It was very sudden. She was in ICU for 24 hours. Due to Covid-19 we were not allowed to visit and none of us were able to sit with her or say goodbye. Mom was in a coma.
    We called the ICU and a nurse held a phone up to her ear while we did a conference call and said our goodbyes. It didn’t allow for private goodbyes but her husband, kids and grandkids all got to say goodbye. It helped.
    I hope this helps dinnertime else to get a chance thi say goodbye in this crazy upside down world.

  5. Sheri Singer  April 4, 2020 at 11:45 am Reply

    Such a trying time, I’m so sorry. Here’s my 2 cents as a trained volunteer grief support person. You’re dealing with complex grief–family dynamics that impede the dying and grief process. Relief is a VERY common feeling. Even when loved ones are close, there’s relief that the person is out of their pain, relief that you can return to your life, etc. In my complex grief, a bereavement counselor told me that closure isn’t always happy, but it is closure. The fact that you are there in some way for your dad speaks volumes about who you are–loving, caring, responsible–you should be proud of yourself for showing up. A grief support person said to me that my relationship may be better after they died–I thought they were nuts but that’s turned out to be true. Your loved ones don’t truly leave you–they are in your head and heart. Once they die, and are relieved from the pain, guilt, shame, mental health issues they were suffering from while here physically, and your relationship may improve. I encourage you to look for signs that your dad is around after he dies. You may see him in nature through birds, animals, or in his favorite foods served at a friend’s house, or in numbers, signs, colors, sports teams that appear randomly, etc. My thoughts are with you, you will get through this.

    • Melinda  April 15, 2020 at 8:37 am Reply

      Love your words. Thank you for posting. I lost my Dad 4th April, I admitted he would not improve 6 days earlier when my Dad was transferred from general hospital to palliative care. He lived 5hrs drive from me in Perth (Western Australia). I have two little ones.. the covid visiting restrictions felt so cruel.

  6. Marzieh Hasanpour  April 2, 2020 at 1:24 am Reply

    thank you dear I was looking for this great material to help family with loved one death with corona19 I think it could be helpful. Please email me and if you have more send me. I wish corona stop soon everywhere.

  7. Christina  March 30, 2020 at 12:19 pm Reply

    I am living this right now. My father was diagnosed with an aggressive kidney cancer just over a week ago. He also is in the early stages of dementia. He lives in California and I live in Colorado. I was estranged from him until four years ago when he almost died from sepsis. He’s a textbook narcissist and has alienated everyone in his life, including one of my siblings. He’s been depressed as long as I can remember and disengaged from the world around him. I am his DPOA and healthcare proxy. We have never had a great relationship and now that I am facing his death I find a sense of relief in it. He’s having surgery next Tuesday, which is the only treatment option available, and it is unlikely he will make it through the surgery. While his death will bring a complexity of emotions to the surface, I am struggling with the idea of him being alone in that. He will be in a hospital where no one he knows can be with him. No visitors, no one in the waiting room. It makes me think about the value our culture places on proximity to the dying in times like this and does it really matter? Can I not still be there in spirit and prayer even though I cannot be there physically? I am not sure yet.

    My dad would never video chat, cannot cook, does not have Netflix, etc. We struggle to identify positive memories or experiences with him. And yet, he is my dad and a part of my cares for him and does not want him to suffer; the rest of me is grieving the man he could have been and chose not to be. The way I am honoring my father right now is to connect with our history as a people and find myself in the greater family story. This is where I see myself: not in him, but in the women who gave my family life. To honor him, I’ll eat his favorite foods next Tuesday, and journal throughout the day while he is in surgery. My spirit will be with him and my hope will be that his suffering is over.

    • Kathleen Rouleau  March 31, 2020 at 10:48 am Reply

      Thank you for sharing that grief is often extremely complicated…… so many reasons we can be a stranger to our own blood family… and any other human being….. whatever the reasons are that your father chose “that way” of being in relationship with life on earth, may his….. yours and all who suffer be given grace and peace……

    • Eleanor Haley  March 31, 2020 at 12:32 pm Reply

      Oh Christina, I am so sorry for all you are going through. I think the ways you share for being with him in spirit are lovely. When we have a complicated relationship with a person in life, it remains complicated in death, or as they are dying. This post might be relevant to a bit of what you are feeling – https://whatsyourgrief.com/grieving-someone-you-didnt-like/ Sending good thoughts.

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