Summary: “Make it all about them”
A few years ago I found myself in a position of wanting to help a friend cope with difficult circumstances – he was losing his wife to cancer. I really wasn’t sure what to do, so I called another friend, a physician who unfortunately deals with death and dying all to often, and asked for his advice. Among other things, he suggested that I read Final Gifts by Maggie Callahan and Patricia Kelley. For me, and my friend, and his wife, this turned out to be very good advice.
The authors are medical professionals who work with dying people. In their book, they provide excellent and often counter-intuitive advice for those who are dealing with friends or loved ones who are dying. The big takeaway for me was that it’s all about the dying person and what they need and want. It’s not about you, or anyone else. Sure it will be tough on you, and you will probably need help, but your best role in this situation is to do all you can to make your friend or loved one’s death as comfortable, stress-free and peaceful as possible. I strongly encourage reading this book. If you do, here are just a few things you will learn.
Pay close attention to certain occurrences that are indications your friend or loved one’s time is very limited and in some cases they might need your help. Comments from the person who is dying or those around him or her that “something is different.” They look through you, or stare into space, or interact with people that you cannot see – reaching for them, talking to them, pointing at them, or waving at them. Confusing comments and the use of symbolic language, especially about going on a trip or traveling, waiting in line, or getting ready for something. Talking about vivid or recurring dreams. Talking about the need for reconciliation or getting closure on unfinished business. The book discusses examples of these and many other occurrences, and gives specific advice on handling each of them.
Overall, it’s best to accept and validate what they are trying to communicate. Don’t argue or challenge them. Instead, ask a lot of open-ended questions about their comments or actions. For example, say, “Will you tell me about that?” If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything – maybe try touching or holding their hand and smiling. Don’t force them to talk about death, but don’t shy away from talking about it if they want to do so.
In general, if you keep your focus on the dying, their needs and their desires – you will likely do the right thing. It’s all about them! Basically you need to let them choose how to spend the time they have left and support their decisions. I believe this book offers you and those you care about comfort in difficult times.
I dedicate this posting to my good friend Tom, his wife Carol, Doc Kilgore, and the women who wrote this incredibly helpful book. Read it – because sooner or later you will need it.