The other day I was having a call with my aunt and godmother who is a hospice nurse in the U.S.
She had texted me to ask, “Have you talked about dying and food? How our bodies need less and less but families want to keep feeding the dying person? Food = Life = Love. It’s quite a psychological issue.”
I was interested to hear more from her about this, so I gave her a call.
She told me, “I have some patients who, if left on their own, wouldn’t eat. They would just stop eating and it’s not that they would be starving. It’s simply that their body doesn’t need the food anymore because they are approaching death. However, their loved ones worry they’ll starve and so they think that they must feed them.”
Sometimes hospice caregivers will spend an hour trying to feed someone a bowl of oatmeal or three hours trying to feed someone a shake, she told me.
My aunt expressed some frustration over this saying that is makes her wonder: “Why are you doing this? You’re forcing it.”
She has empathy, though, for caregivers and family members because, “People equate food with health and with love.”
My aunt insisted, “It’s not that you’re not going to feed them. You’re going to offer it. If they take it, great. If they don’t that’s okay too. But people have a really hard time accepting that.”
She then explained to me some of the specific ways that it can actually be quite harmful and dangerous to force a dying person to eat. They can go into respiratory distress and it can have a really negative effect on the person’s death.
Through all her experience, my aunt has seen how people become less able to eat as they die.
This makes sense, but this is not something about which we think very often – if ever.
“When you start to actively die, you don’t need to be eating. When we have patients who are eating well and they’re enjoying it, I don’t think those patients are dying,” she said.
Sometimes trying to feed someone who is dying is really a matter of trying to nourish our own hopes. Dying patients, however, usually have a different appetite for affection. And that’s why holding a person’s hand and singing or speaking to them can be so key in the final moments.