Talking from the heart: What to say when it's the end of life

It's a natural human reaction to respond to people who have cancer with fear, trepidation and uncertainty — or in my case, stand around quietly with my hands in my pockets. I had to learn how to communicate with very sick relatives the hard way.

Sadly, I've had a lot of experience with this. My sister-in-law currently has brain cancer, which started as breast cancer and then spread through her lymph nodes, and my other sister-in-law died from complications from a brain tumor.

In the course of interacting with them, I realized that I had to really learn how to speak thoughtfully and carefully to them about their diseases. But I also realized I didn't really know where to start. As their diseases progressed, I learned what to say and what not to say. It was trial and error and unfortunately, along the way, I said things that I wish I hadn't. Fortunately, I didn't say them twice.

To help navigate these uncharted waters, here are a few tips that I learned through my own personal experience:

  • Do look the person in the eyes as you're talking, particularly if they are losing hair or looking sickly. This is hard, but important. They are struggling with self-respect and you need to reinforce every good thing about them. Look into their eyes and speak from your heart.
  • Do be empathetic. You can use phrases like, "I'm sorry this is happening to you," but stay away from saying things like, "I know what you feel like" unless, of course, you'vehad cancer. If you haven't, you really can't know what it's like.
  • Don't shy away as they move to the advanced stages of the disease. Continue to look them in the eyes and take their hands. Even if they are debilitated, talk as if they can hear and understand you, because on a subconscious level they may. The mind is a mysterious organ; coma victims often wake and recall people talking clearly to them, even though they were unable to respond.
  • Do offer to be helpful, and follow through. With my sister-in-law, a cousin offered to cook ready-to-eat meals and meals that could be frozen and cooked quickly. Many people participated in cooking these meals for the family, old friends and new acquaintances alike. We also pooled money for a housekeeper to come in and clean the house on a regular basis. Childcare is another great way to relieve the stress of fighting cancer, and even taking the kids for a couple of hours a week helps. If you know they could use help with money, send it in a card in the mail; this gives them a polite way to accept.
  • Don't ask how long the doctor says they have to live. If you really need that information, ask someone else close to the person.
  • Do listen patiently to them without interrupting with your own dialogue; even your worst flu or harried life is nothing compared to one day of undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation.
  • Don't burden the person with your crying. Do it anywhere else. I cried in the car, bathroom, and back at home after I dropped the kids off at school. Sometimes I even cried in front of my children; I wanted them to understand the natural process of birth and death, no matter how unkind our situation seemed.
  • Most of all, remember that we are all born and we all die, and in between, all we can do is our best to love and be loved.

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