Monday, November 1, 2010

Live Through This.

Awhile ago someone asked me for advice regarding what to bring to a friend who was terminally ill. They weren't sure if they should bring gifts of food, or more meaningful gifts and were seeking advice regarding how / what to say if it was a last visit. Many tough but thoughtful, beautiful questions and I was so heartened to have been asked. Visiting and spending time with someone who has been prominent in your life and now may leave it shortly is excruciating; it forces us all to face our own mortality and more immediately gives you a heartbreaking taste of love and loss.

Visits and patients and environments are varied but here are some suggestions from what I felt and experienced with Alan. I can't speak for him, but I was there, in an altered state for sure, but present nonetheless: Food, in our case, wasn't a good idea. If you're a cancer patient often you have undergone or are enduring rigorous therapies that either limit your diet or render you unable to physically eat. Cancer floors of hospitals often prohibit outside food - it can upset those who cannot eat and often isn't something that can be consumed anyway. It can be torturous. The only good that comes of it is as a way to thank the nursing staff. Family and friends, on the other hand, may welcome food - but generally they'll be uncomfortable eating it in front of others and often our appetites were gone too. So consider where you'll be going and ask ahead of time if they'd like something and leave it it that. Don't force, no one has the energy, or interest.

Best gifts? Your presence when the person who's being visited has the energy. Second to your presence? Anecdotes from your shared lives. Memories and stories or even the most basic reminiscences.

Life relived is a gift.

Old photos are perfect conversation material, and one of my/our favorite physical gifts was a tiny potted flower plant. It was small, it was sweet, it was simple, it was life. Flowers NO, plants, yes. Other special thoughts were pictures drawn by our friends' kids.
Whimsical, bright, and loving.
Most importantly, if the friend is lucid and aware of their fate, if you can summon up the courage, let them know in private how much they've meant to you. You don't have to gush, you don't have to be ominous - and you don't have to say goodbye - but you can say, you mean the world to me and I hope to see you again in the next few days (if that's true) but if I can't for whatever reason prevents that from happening, know I love you and will celebrate you and carry you in my heart always. Something like that - honest, from the heart.

It is torturous, I know.

But I think for Alan - despite the heartache and the courage it took for him to listen - it gave him a profound sense of the mark he'd made on the world.

Keep your visits brief.
Watch them for signs. Ten minutes, half hour - max, unless they say otherwise.
Illness is exhausting. Meds are taxing.

Hearts are full.

Don't be offended if they don't want a visit.
Life is hard, death is harder.
Be prepared that if they do want to see you, you may get there and they're sleeping, or they're not up for it or they're being treated for something. Plan with extra time and understand you may not get in.
Emails or letters are wonderful too - someone inevitably will be there to read them aloud.

And for the family of the person who's days are measured?
They're savoring a life. Hanging on to minutes, hours, days.
Don't force walks, showers, coffee breaks, meals out.
The thought comes from a good place but think about it. If your loved one may not make it through the night or the next day , they won't want to leave their side unless the doctors kick them out. Even if I had a year more with Alan I'd be by his side every waking moment. (I would shower, I guess.)
No matter how unhealthy it is, or how much weight one is losing - if company is wanted, they'll ask.

Respect their torment, leave it at that.

Hard. So hard. But if you can live through this, you'll be OK.

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