I got an email yesterday from a woman whose annulment I facilitated a few years back. She’s left Brooklyn and started a new life in the south. She wanted to share some news and asked me to spread some important information.
I repost her email below (with her permission, but without her name or location).
Take and read:
In October 2019, I found out I had both colon cancer and breast cancer. I had surgery that November. Six months of chemo then followed by radiation. I had six months before the colon cancer returned and now am doing an even stronger dose of chemo that I am told will give me possibly two to three years of life.
I am at peace with this. But I spend a lot of my time trying to get other people on board with that concept. I can’t believe how much time I put in calming people down. I want to spend the rest of my days having fun with friends. So I am asking any Deacons, Pastors and Priests to help educate their flock. Help them to know that death is not a disaster. I see that being told I have two years is a gift. So many people in my age group woke up one morning, got into a car and never came back. They had a heart attack or an aortic aneurysm or one of many other things that gave them no time to prepare. I have that time. And as much as I like my new city and my new house, this is not my home. I know where I’m going and it is beyond my wildest dreams…
I am also surprised at what people say to me. I recently bought a new car and my neighbor who knows I am terminal said, “Oh my goodness, why did you buy a car?” As if to say, “You’re almost dead, what were you thinking?!”
I explained I needed the new safety features. He had no clue he said something inappropriate. Another friend keeps saying, “I can’t believe soon you won’t be here, I’m gonna miss talking to you.” I feel like saying, “Would you please quit that? I’m not dead yet.” And there are many other examples like that.
It is obvious we are not taught what to say in these situations. And mine is not the standard journey. Most people either die immediately or in a couple of months. By me dying a couple years from now, people do not know how to handle this. As we live longer I think there will be more situations like this where your guidance will be helpful.
It’s hard to know what to say when someone you love is dying. But often the gift of presence, just being there for them, is enough.
I found this advice online, from a palliative care nurse:
Having supported thousands of people as they were dying, Nikki Johnston has learned the art of encouraging honest conversations at what is often a difficult and emotional time. The key, she says, is not trying to lead conversations. It is much safer to ask questions that enable the person who is dying to take the lead.
The palliative care nurse practitioner from Clare Holland House in Canberra might ask “When you think of your future, is there anything you’re scared or frightened about?” or “When you think about things past or present, what’s on your mind?”
She never knows how people will respond.
“People will say things like, ‘I know I’m dying, but that’s not worrying me. Who is going to look after my dog?’”
Speaking to Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh for his podcast series, The Good Life, Ms Johnston says she was scared and nervous about having these conversations at the beginning of her 18-year career, but good mentors taught her this approach avoided delving into territory that made patients feel unsafe.
In keeping with that advice, she says she would never tell someone they were dying before she had formed a good relationship.
“I’d let them tell me.”
Her advice is to act normally. There is no need to lower your voice or be sad all the time. Most importantly, particularly if a young person is dying, “be there”.
“That is one of the hardest things to do. It is much easier to run away.”
She says she is amazed by young people who are dying, as they are so strong and have taught her a great deal about courage. There is huge value in just spending time with them, letting them laugh and allowing them too, to be their normal selves.
“It might sound funny, but I use humor quite a lot, and people will laugh and tell me funny stories. And that is quite a lovely thing to do when someone is dying.”
We need perspective, too. Jesus’s words to his followers at the Last Supper are words I like to share at wakes and funerals — and they help me remember where we all hope to go:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where [I] am going you know the way.”