Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Do You Say To Someone Who’s Dying?

Last month I wrote a post about my friend M and her best friend D who is dying from cancer. D learned this when she was in the hospital for back surgery. She had survived breast cancer a few years ago but the cancer returned and has spread to many other parts of her body.

The best guess three weeks ago was that she has only two to six months to live. Now, halfway through that two month marker, she got an update. Doctors say the cancer has spread to her brain and a particularly insensitive doctor gave her that news today on her cell phone and cancelled a consult tomorrow because he didn’t want her to go all the way there (50 miles) just to hear that.

D was discharged from the hospital a week ago and has been at our house since then. She is not allowed to go home yet because she needs constant assistance for the most basic functions and M offered to take turns helping along with another of D’s friends; the plan is/was two weeks here, two weeks there, etc. D has been making a very slow recovery from the back surgery but still can’t even walk without help. D is not usually a helpless person and this whole situation is, as you might suspect, frustrating for her. It is also frustrating for M and for me because there is nothing we can do to make things better, other than helping when we can.

When I heard this news this evening, a big dose of reality swept over me. D might be spending the last weeks, or even days of her life in my house. She was asleep when I got home so I haven’t had a conversation with her about the latest news.

So my question: what do you say to someone who’s dying? I am usually supportive and optimistic. D is a fighter but is also fairly pessimistic about things. I want to say something that is comforting and supportive but I also refuse to speak bullshit. It would not be welcomed anyway.

If D was mobile, I’d offer to take her places, movies, dog shows, parks, whatever she wanted. But she only gets up to go to the bathroom and that can take an hour of incremental movement consisting of multiple attempts to transfer from the chair that has been her home for a week to the wheel chair that transports her to the bathroom.

We could have conversations like we did when she stayed here after her breast cancer radiation treatments two years ago. She is very intelligent, an Ivy League graduate with advanced degrees, so it was a challenge for me to keep up sometimes. But her thought patterns are now very scattered. I attributed that to the pain meds but now I wonder if it is related to the cancer spreading to her brain.

My first thought is to say “you’re still alive, don’t give up yet, get another medical opinion or two.” Another idea is to get her to tell stories about pleasant memories. I am also tempted to ask about her advanced directives. That is none of my business, but if she dies in my house, I might need to know some of this. M knows a little bit but not nearly enough, given how close they are. D has few, if any living relatives; M and a handful of other friends are her whole support system.

D is lucky to have the friends she has. Watching this unfold scares me because I have let so many of my geographically close friendships whither away. If I were in this same situation I should be able to count on M for the same support she has given D, but if you know me in person, you know how ironic all of this is.

I don’t know what I will say to D next time we speak but I do know these events reinforce my growing desire to focus more of my attention on the present. The bottom line: carpe diem.

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