Q. A dear cousin of mine is dying of colon cancer and I’m going to visit him. I want to see him, but I’m also nervous about it. I don’t know what I should talk about. What do you suggest? 


A. This situation has become more and more common—and complex—due to medical advances. One issue involves your definition of “dying.” It used to mean days/weeks/a few months to live. Today, the person may have a terminal illness that allows him to function in life (at least on good days), and perhaps even work. This period might last as long as a year or two or more.


In the first case, the person is usually in a hospital, hospice, or other facility—or at home, perhaps receiving hospice services. You can’t go wrong with a hug or taking his hand and saying, “I think of you all the time,” or just “I love you,” if that’s true and feels right. Then listen quietly to his reply and follow his lead. You can also think in advance of memories you share, as in, “I was just remembering the trip to Vermont. It was such a long drive, and you were the entertainment director coming up with all those word games.” If you can’t think of anything, pull out the family photo album and leaf through to access memories. Better yet, bring an album with you. You can turn the pages together and reminisce. You might also say (if appropriate); “Tell me about hospice.” Or ask, “How did you ever wind up in the hardware business?” Most important, try to be authentic and treat the person as you always have. 


There are other options if the person is able to go out in the world at least some of the time. You might suggest an activity, such as a movie. A comedy or a film that touches on a deep interest of the patient (such as politics or sports) might be good medicine. You can discuss the movie’s pros and cons afterward. A walk in the park and/or conversation in a cafe are other possibilities. Think of open-ended questions to ask, such as “How is acupuncture working out?”


Regardless of where you talk, resist the urge to say, “How are you?” Writer Christopher Hitchens, who is being treated for esophageal cancer, famously replied, “How am I?  I’m dying.”


If you have a question for Florence, please email her at fisaacs@florenceisaacs.com.


Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.  


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Comment by W Hman on November 22, 2011 at 1:10pm

"If there's anything I can do, just let me know"  This is what many of us say to the newly bereaved friend or relative.  Oh, we sincerely mean it.  We would do anything to help.  But does the bereaved one call us and say:  "I've thought of something that you can do to help me"?  Not usually.  Clearly, we may need to take some initiative if we are truly to assist and comfort one who is grieving.  Some things that I think are helpful are the following:

1. Listen: Some persons may need to talk about their loved one who has died, about the illness or accident that caused the death.  So ask: "Would you care to talk about it?"  Let them decide. Allow them to express whatever they want to share.  Listen patiently and sympathetically without feeling that you have to provide answers or solutions.

2. Provide reassurance:  Assure them that they did all that was possible (or whatever else you know to be true and positive).  Reassure them that what they are feeling--sadness, anger, or some other emotion may not be uncommon.  Tell them about others you know of who successfully recovered from a similar loss.

3. Be available: Make yourself available, not just for the first few days when many family and relatives are present, but even months later when others have returned to their normal routine.  In this way you prove yourself a true companion, the kind who stands by a friend in a time of distress. 

4. Take appropriate initiative: Are there errands that need to be run?  Is someone needed to watch the children?  Do visiting friends and relatives need a place to stay?  Recently bereaved persons are often so stunned that they do not even know what they need to do, let alone tell others how they can help.  So if you discern a genuine need, do not wait to be asked; take initiative.

While I could go and write about 5,6,7,8 and so on.... I won't.  Just keep in mind that helping a bereaved person calls for compassion, discernment, and much love on your part.  Do not wait for the bereaved to come to you.  Do not simply say,"If there's anything I can do..." Find that "anything" yourself, and then take the appropriate initiative. 

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