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Advice you absolutely need before someone close to you gets close to dying


David Mills - published on 09/07/18

Big talks aren't necessary, but you do want to say a few things ...

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I try to remember the happier times, but the picture that I see first is my sister in the hospice bed. Karen looked tiny, shrunken by the cancer, her head against the pillow and her arms lying on the blanket, one almost skeletal, the other bloated from a blood clot. She was asleep and would never again wake up in this world.

She lay there very early in the morning the day after Labor Day two years ago. I’m writing the day after Labor Day and though the actual anniversary is two days hence, this feels like the anniversary. Anniversaries trigger memories, but not always the memories you want. No one warned me about that.

Unasked for memories

Memories come unasked for. As I try to bring up happy ones and suppress the picture of Karen in the hospice bed, I remember one thing. Not a happy thing, because the memory can be a treacherous organ. I never said a proper goodbye.

My sister had wanted to die at home and the hospice had given us everything we needed, but we couldn’t control her pain. We sat in her bedroom, watching the pain medicine not work. I asked her if she wanted to go to the hospice, thinking she’d say no, thinking she’d say no in a “what a stupid question” way, and she nodded her head yes.

I went to make the arrangements and then call the people who’d want to know. I let in the hospice people and they went to her room to get her ready for the trip.

I’d thought we would get to the hospice, the nurses would settle her in and leave, and my wife and I could say a proper goodbye. All efficient and rational and dramatically appropriate. She had her eyes closed as the EMTs wheeled her out of the house, but I didn’t realize till the hospice nurse let us into her room that she’d gone to sleep.

We didn’t get to say a proper goodbye. That’s the thing my treacherous memory brings up. I’d written the goodbye in my head, all the things I wanted to tell her, to lay out nicely and well at the very end of her life. That’s the way it should happen, the way it happens in stories.

Saying all I wanted to say would mostly help me, and I knew that, because she knew what I was going to say and was well beyond worrying about it. I did hope hearing it from me would make her a little happier or maybe just a little more content.

But she was asleep before I could tell her.

A beautiful day

This isn’t much of a lesson, but it is a lesson I wish I’d learned when my sister first found out she was dying: Say everything that you want to say when the person you love can still hear it.

You don’t need to have a Big Talk. Those awkward conversations can embarrass everyone and needlessly remind your loved one and everyone else that she’s dying fast. Make a list of the things you want to tell her. Share each item at a different time, when saying it seems natural. Begin with lines like “Remember the time when we” and “I’ve always appreciated how you” and “I don’t know if I ever thanked you for” and “You probably don’t know how helpful that was when you.”

You may need to apologize for hurting your loved one. That’s trickier. You might do that sooner rather than later, in case your asking forgiveness opens old wounds that need time to heal. You may also want to demand an apology from your dying loved one, to clear the air and settle the accounts before he dies. That’s even trickier. You will want to talk to a wise counselor first, I think. You may need simply to forgive them and give up the hope they will apologize. If you need to tell them, a wise friend will help you do it well.

At some point say, “I love you. I can’t imagine having lived my life without you. I am going to miss you for the rest of my life.” You want to have that said. I’d said something like that to my sister, but not very well and not completely. It’s what I would have told her in the hospice.

When someone you love is dying, don’t wait to tell them the things you want them to know. Death comes like a thief in the night, and one of the things it can steal is your last goodbye.

David wrote about his sister’s last night here in My Sister Died, and I Have No Lessons But That God Stays With Us and later in No Suffering Goes Unused.

He edits Hour of Our Death, which offers stories of those dying or facing the death of loved ones, and insights from the saints, and other help in dealing with death.

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