Breast Cancer and Death: Talking to Friends who are about to Die

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • What do you say to a friend who’s dying?

    Sadly, most of us have faced this seminal moment in our lives. Someone near to you is dying. Maybe it’s a close family member, perhaps a good friend, maybe someone who doesn’t fit the parameters of “good friend,” but with whom you’ve become close, through cancer treatment. The time has come when it’s apparent that all the good medical care in the world hasn’t taken away this person’s illness, and, barring a miracle (medical, or spiritual), they’re going to die.

    What can you possibly say?

    First of all, try very hard to gauge how the person is feeling. Do they believe that they’re dying? Have they accepted that fact, or are they pinning hopes on another treatment, a stronger round of chemo? If they’ve accepted it, are they bitter? Angry? At peace? All three (and more), depending on when you talk to them? By first understanding where your friend is at in the journey–denial, anger, acceptance–you can then identify how to connect in a positive way. Words can’t change the fact of death; but they can certainly soften the passage.
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    If they’re angry, encourage their venting; they may have a tendency to shout and swear, while at the same time apologizing to you for their emotion. Tell them you’re not upset by their anger, that you want to hear it. “Bring it on! Say every rotten, nasty thing you’re feeling!” Anger vented is anger dissipated.

    If your friend is sad and tearful, you may both be comfortable not saying anything. A hug is healing. Putting your arms around someone, letting them literally cry on your shoulder, into the warmth and comforting darkness of your body, can bring them back to their childhood, when mom could fix anything with a hug and a Kleenex. Crying is another form of venting; it’s not as violent as anger, but just as powerful. Crying with someone–yes, you can cry, too–puts the sadness on the table, and turns it from a knot in the belly into a full-body experience; one that’s a gentle ache, rather than a fierce pain.

    If the person is apparently at peace with their death–a very difficult place to get to, but some achieve it–you may want to gently ask them about what they think will happen after death. Not to their body–to their spirit. Do they believe that death is simply the absence of life, that it’s the final word in the novel–there’s nothing that comes after it? Honor that belief. Ask them to describe to you the good things they’ve done in their life, the loving ways they’ll be remembered, the mark they’ve made in the world, no matter how small. Do they believe they’re going to Heaven? Ask them if they’d like you to pray with them; or perhaps they’d like to describe their vision of the afterlife. Or maybe they believe in an afterlife, but can’t quite picture it… If you sit quietly and listen, maybe prompt with some leading questions-“And what happens then? What does it feel like?”-you may be able to help your friend form a clearer picture in his or her mind, a place they can go to when the end comes closer.

  • This all sounds good on paper, but when you actually find yourself face to face (or on the phone, or even on e-mail) with a dying friend, you may find yourself totally at a loss. Your voice won’t work, your fingers won’t move on the keyboard. If you’re face to face, start with a hug. Look the person in the eye. Then (and this applies to any situation, not just face to face), say something positive. Don’t say “I’m sorry;” that’s not only entirely self-evident, but also introduces sorrow to the situation. Or, “What can I do for you?” The answer may well be a dead-end “nothing.” Instead, say “I’m here for you.” If the situation seems right, tell a silly joke. Laughter ALWAYS helps. And most important, if you can, say “I love you.” As John Lennon sang so long ago, love is the answer. To so many of life’s situations. Even to death, the most powerful, difficult one of all.
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Published On: August 17, 2006