Thanatology: the family must engage throughout the mourning

Thanatology cares for both the patient and his or her loved ones, since the family may need assistance more than the patient does.

Thanatology: the family must engage throughout the mourning
The family should be involved, from beginning to end, in the mourning process. Photo by Joshua Sukoff / Unsplash

Fear of loneliness, of not being remembered, of the unknown, of having wasted life, the destruction and deterioration of the body, leaving legal matters in disarray, as well as separation from people, are the most common feelings of an individual in the terminal phase, according to the representative of the Clinical Psychology Faculty in the Special Commission for Teaching Evaluation of the Faculty of Psychology, Guadalupe Celia Medina Hernandez.

During a talk on thanatology and psychogerontology, which was part of the lecture series of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of this house of studies, she added: A terminally ill person always relates the fear that the process towards death is lived in solitude, he would like someone to be holding his hand at the moment of death.

"Both in sickness and old age, there is fear of not knowing what will happen next, what the dying process will be like, what they will feel. Likewise, these groups question their past and whether they lived intensely," argued the UNAM School of Psychology graduate.

Medina Hernández focuses on accompanying the terminally ill, whether they are elderly or of any age.  It is necessary to know how to be with them, understand them, be empathetic and understand the mourning processes they go through.

The main element for this process to be successful is that the family participates from beginning to end, even if at some point they need professional help. Thanatology attends to the patient and also to his or her relatives. There comes a time when they need more support than the terminally ill patient when he/she accepts his/her death; this is the moment when the family breaks down.

"When the patient no longer responds to any treatment, the physician transforms his medicine into palliative care and must inform the family that there is nothing more to be done. What often happens is that the family asks not to tell the patient, which affects them a lot and is a waste of time, it becomes a conspiracy of silence; the family stops talking to the patient and valuable time is lost, the subject is avoided and they do not allow themselves to suffer in front of their loved one. The family needs to open up, be honest, cry together and resolve pending issues," Medina Hernandez added.

If there is a situation where the mother or father of a family is in the terminal phase, the treatment with the children, especially with infants, must be the same way. There is an obligation to inform them of the real situation in which their parents find themselves.

Minors must be told the truth, they must say goodbye to their parents, and they must live the process of death. Even if they are going to have a wake, they should be at the wake and the burial. They are almost always isolated and it is terrible because it hurts them, they have to know that they died.

"A child suffers less than an adult, they have less time on the planet, their attachments are not as great as those of an adult, clearly it hurts them to lose their parents, but the time that the sick person has left is valuable to say goodbye to their children. For the same reason, it is necessary to bring the children closer, although ideally at home, to make the child and the rest of the family have these last moments at home since it is always where the sick person wishes to die".

Human beings in general need the support of a thanatologist at different stages of their existence since losses are not only related to death and what it implies.

Thanatology is the interdisciplinary study of death and, although it sounds paradoxical, it is a science of life that teaches you to enjoy it, because by being aware that it is going to end, living becomes an enlightening experience and above all, it is enhanced.

Psychogerontology focuses on assisting older adults who are experiencing the grief of being in the "last stage". Medina Hernández defined it as the area of psychology that studies and is in charge of knowing the profile and psychological changes of older adults and their aging process.

Both disciplines are in charge of promoting in the human being the acceptance of death, the need to exist with this awareness, and to have a better quality of life, without the need to feel fear of dying.