You’ve done everything you could to help. You’ve been positive, supportive, an advocate, errand-runner, meal cooker, hand holder, medical researcher-you name it, you’ve done it, all in the hopes that your hard work, along with the courage and strength of your loved one, would get you both through it all to emerge in a better place sometime in the future.
And then she says something about dying.
Your mouth goes dry, your eyes shift. You don’t want to talk about this. You don’t even want to think about it. But your loved one is looking at you with soulful eyes. What do you do?
“I did need to talk about the possibility of my death,” says survivor Phyllis Johnson. “I found no comfort from all the people who told me about how their aunt Minnie had lived for 20 years since her mastectomy. Aunt Minnie might be alive, but my friends Catherine and Marian weren’t.”
“How do I get the people in my life to confess out loud that this could, and in all likelihood will, kill me?” says fighter Carolyn. “Everyone around me is insistent on being optimistic and denying the truth that this disease kills people everyday, and I could be one of them.”
The reality is that if someone has an aggressive cancer, whether it’s truly life threatening at that moment or not, they will probably think about or worry about dying from it. Whether your loved one is truly terminal, or just worries she might be, if she can’t talk to you about it, who will she talk to? Or will she suffer alone?
“Often people think that by not talking about death, they are protecting the other person from hurt or sadness,” says cancerconnections.com. “In reality, though, dying is often foremost in the mind of the patient, and not talking about it is like trying to ignore the elephant in the room.”
“Most people say it is a relief to talk about it openly and be direct and honest,” says CancerHelp UK. “It can bring people closer together when they talk honestly about death and share their fears and hopes.”
If someone you love brings up the subject of dying, take a deep breath, and do one thing-listen. Avoid statements that can shut down the conversation, like, “Things will be fine-just wait and see.” You may think you’re comforting the person, but actually you’re shutting down communication and avoiding the subject. Instead, ask questions like, “How do you feel about that? Are you finding it difficult? Do you have specific concerns? Are you scared?” These types of questions invite more conversation, and can help your loved one get his feelings out. Try not to offer advice, or claim to know how the person is feeling-allow them to tell you.
Note that your loved one may not come right out and say he wants to talk. Instead, he may say something like, “Well, I guess this is the end,” or, “Looks like I’m not going to beat it this time.” Try answering with something like, “This must be very hard for you,” or a similar empathetic statement that will encourage the person to keep talking. Give him time to get his emotions out-he may repeat himself, due to the emotional difficulty of the subject. If one of you starts crying, don’t worry about it-it’s a normal response. Ask if there is anything he thinks might help him feel better.
“A simple answer to the question of what to say to a friend who is dying?” says Mona Ackerman, clinical psychologist. “Approach, don’t be afraid, be honest and ask questions. Don’t assume you understand or can make the pain go away. What you can do is listen, respond, and give back what is needed, even if that is silence.”
Have you talked to a friend about dying? Do you have any advice?
Photo courtesy varf via Flickr.com.