Help me talk to my friend with cancer
May 16, 2012 11:02 AM   Subscribe

My neighbor is dying of cancer. It's touch or go, and I am not sure, but it may be the end. I am young enough that I haven't known many people to die, and my neighbor is himself young. Not to be dramatic, but I don't know how to say goodbye and I'm nervous.

A little background, fwiw. Their family is private and introverted, but kind and friendly with my family. We're close in age, and our kids are too, and we've spent a lot of time together over the last several years because we attend the same church. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is best friend or family, and 1 is a stranger, he is a 6.

I am not intuitively sure how to talk to him is my point -- what to say, how to say it. He isn't in hospice care, and is hoping to get well for another treatment, but some of what we've heard sounds like things could go very fast. So I worry that there isn't a shared knowledge that "he is dying", or that I shouldn't presume it, though right now he is dying, and I was told he almost didn't make it through the weekend.

Any advice or stories or just concepts that will help me understand this. I'm nervous.
posted by scunning to Human Relations (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It might not need to be said. I usually end conversations with my close friends with "take care of yourself." and if one of them were dying, I'm not sure I wouldn't just keep saying it. It's okay to let your neighbor take the lead, to just try to make space for them to say what they need to say, and for you to maybe just be kind in return.

You don't need to be eloquent. Just be kind.

Also: having somebody close to you die is tough, even if you're not related to them. Take care of yourself.
posted by gauche at 11:11 AM on May 16, 2012

This happened with a neighbor/fellow parent/friendly person I knew when my kids were small. Because they were such private people, I too felt unsure how to talk to her about it. So I didn't. I talked to her about the kids and how they were doing, helped her spouse out with cooking/cleaning/lawn care/child activities, etc. Households have to continue functioning when the adults who run them are unable to, and that's what churches/neighbors/friends are for.

The "dying" part is scary and unpredictable, but the reality is that your friend and his family are suffering, and there are dozens of ways--besides talking directly about it--that you can help ease their suffering.
posted by headnsouth at 11:13 AM on May 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Nothing wrong with popping a "Thinking of You" card in the mailbox. It gets the sentiment out, you're not intruding, and they can maintain their privacy if that's what they want.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:18 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

That sounds tough. If you are involved in your church, I encourage you to head over to your pastor/priest/leader over there and get his or her advice on this topic. He or she has been trained to minister to the dying and to those being left behind, and that includes friends and neighbors. It might also help to talk to your kids, who are probably having similar confused feelings about their friends' dad, about what dying means and how your religion sees it and keeps memories alive. If you feel up for it, you can make your house the "normal" house and open it up to those kids who may need a place to go for a meal or homework help or just a little taste of normalcy while things are tough, which might be for a long time.

If you spend time visiting him and are looking for topics, specifically, you have two things in common right away: your church, and your kids. Tell him about the last church service or about the sermon and ask him his thoughts on the topic, or compare milestones with your respective children, focusing on your willingness to be there for his kids. Take your cues from him.
posted by juniperesque at 11:21 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure where I read this, but if you do try and talk to him don't dwell on the immediate circumstances. Tell him stories about your week, your family, what has been keeping you busy, maybe some naughty work drama, something to help him escape his situation a bit.

Also, something that could be really nice is bringing the family some homemade food, asking if they need an errand run, or maybe mowing their lawn.
posted by Captain Chesapeake at 11:25 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just visit them. Ask them how they are and let them lead that conversation where they are comfortable leading it. Spending time with them--even just your presence if they are very ill or half in and out of sleep--will be comforting (if they are up to visits). Don't worry about 'goodbyes'. If you take that out of the equation it might help you feel less overwhelmed. It's difficult to know how to comfort the dying. I've found that whatever makes it possible for me to simply be there works.
posted by marimeko at 11:27 AM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear about your friend. Hopefully, there is a family member who is a bit of a gatekeeper who you could maybe talk to and ask what sort of visit is welcome. Two of my family members have spent time at home with a terminal diagnosis and on some days the number of visitors got kind of overwhelming for both individual and family. When in doubt I'd say keep visits short and try not to overstay or wear people out. Then as to what you say-- "Hey, remember that time when we...?" sort of thing went over very well with my mother. With the other family member it was more like, "I saw this article today..."

One thing I thought was weird and not helpful was people sitting there like the dying person was supposed to say something to make them feel better. Or at least it started to seem that way because so many people were doing it. Remember that this person is getting a lot of visitors (typically) and it is taxing so above all try not to make any demands on them.

Oh-- on preview I realize I got my own issues mixed in here, and it's not clear whether the official position is that your friend is dying or how bad he feels or whether people are paying farewell visits. I still think it's a good idea to talk to a family member about what you can do to help, and then keep conversations with the person fairly normal unless they indicate they want to talk about dying.
posted by BibiRose at 11:27 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're not required to talk to your dying friend about dying. Unless of course he brings it up and wants to talk about it. I'm sure he's thinking plenty about death and would probably benefit from visits and conversations with friends that focus on other topics.

Some ideas: (although this is difficult because I don't know him. But you'll get the idea.)

Talk with him about his interests. Ask him to teach you something or explain something about his field of interest.
Bring over movies or books you know he might enjoy, if he likes movies and books.
Gossip with him about the neighbors or people from church (if he's a gossiper).
Talk with him about the children. Ask him for advice, if he likes giving it and gives good advice.
If you know he likes a certain type of music, make him a mix cd.
Read to him.
Show him funny youtube videos.
Tell him dirty jokes.

You get the idea. Try to bring him some laughter and joy.

And try to support his partner. Are there some meals you can cook? Housekeeping? Childcare?

You don't have to say goodbye out loud. When a well liked neighbor of mine died, a group of us planted some tries in her honor in the common area of the neighborhood. It was a good way to remember her. Maybe you can do something similar with your church family?
posted by dchrssyr at 11:31 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have faced this so, so many times. (I lived in San Francisco in the '80's.)

I found that when visiting the very, very ill, that being upbeat and cheerful is important. Being open to discussing anything at all with the sick person is also helpful.

My friends wanted to talk to me about everything under the sun, from movies and cats, to my feelings about heaven. I told one special friend that in my view of heaven, all of my dead relatives were up there, playing cards, and waiting for the next game cycle to start. I told him to look them up when he got there. If it gets really heavy, don't worry, he's just expressing fear and pain to you because he doesn't want to freak out his wife and kids. Comfort him as best you can. I had no problem assuring my very sweet friends that they'd be going to heaven.

If you find yourself at a loss for something to say, and your friend isn't very communicative, just babble a bit about what's going on in the neighborhood. If he seems tired. Tell him you'll return when he's more up to a visit. Some folks can't deal with more than 15 minutes of visiting time.

Upon leaving, ask if there's anything you can do or get for him. Most of my friends wanted gossip magazines. Ask if there's anything you can do for his family. He may have some ideas.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:45 AM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ask if there's anything you can do for his family. He may have some ideas.

This is great advice. His family are caregivers now and totally focused on his needs. They'll be reluctant to ask for help for themselves (if it even occurs to them) but your friend will have ideas as to what they need, and it will help him feel like he's still contributing if he's able, through you, to get them birthday gifts, flowers, etc.

Also, if he's too ill to attend his kids' activities, then you can go and record them for him. Kid at bat, kid doing karate moves, kid doing soccer warmup drills, kids at the park. Invite the kids to ham it up for daddy on the video.
posted by headnsouth at 12:24 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Be kind and present and take his lead. Ask him if there is anything he would like you to do to help his kids and wife when he's gone, not just now. Does he have a son who needs someone to teach him baseball? A daughter who needs help riding her bike? Ask him what he is most concerned about for his family after he is gone, and let him know how you will be able to set that up. Most importantly, respect the commitments you are making to this dying man. If you can promise to mow their lawn weekly, or take out the trash when the bin is extra heavy, follow through. And once you've had the conversation with him, have one with his wife.

Don't babble on and on to fill the void left by the absence of his voice. If he doesn't want to answer these questions or talk, just sit there with him, assure him you will do all you can to watch over his family, then let the room be silent.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 1:51 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, speaking as someone with cancer, if I were at the point where I was terminal and no one talked about it when they were with me, I would spend my last days really fucking angry. At least give him the opportunity to decide if he wants to talk about this by letting him know he can. There's no place in pretending this isn't happening. And it is terribly horrible and depressing to be the elephant in the room.

And also, have normal conversation. Ease into the death talk. As how his kids and wife are holding up. Tell him something funny about something his kids did recently out at the park or with his kids. Say something considerate about his wife or family. Then you can get into the logistics of his situation.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 1:54 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. The themes I am hearing are new to me, which is helpful. Namely to consider sharing information and conversation with him that he will personally enjoy and find meaningful.

At the moment, we are trying to do practical stuff as are other families, like mowing the lawn and hanging out with kids.

I liked that someone said I am not obligated to talk about death. That felt good to know. I was somewhat nervous because I felt like there was this defined script out there that I was supposed to read and act from, and I knew even if that script was one others could easily adopt, I would probably mess it up.

He has much closer friends than me, and I suppose that was the additional concern I had about our talk. I am torn between wanting to communicate to him that I love him and to witness his life respectfully, to wanting to just give him space. I suppose that is what makes a phone call maybe more suitable for me and him.

Thank you for all the thoughtful responses. I appreciate it. It's given me plenty to think about. I welcome anymore too.
posted by scunning at 2:04 PM on May 16, 2012

Don't be concerned about whether he has closer friends with you. Some of the most important interactions I've had as I've moved through this maze have been with people I newly met or only knew casually.

You're not obligated to talk about death, but it would be nice if you could let him know subtly that if he wants to talk about death, you will listen.

Also, try avoiding taking about too many events happening in the future. He may be struggling with the idea that he doesn't even know at this point if he could look forward to a moment blowing bubbles with the kids the next day because he doesn't know if he'll make it through the night.

Avoid saying things like, "I know what you mean"; "I get that"; "Next year" (unless he brings it up) "You are so strong"; "I don't know how you do this"/ "I wouldn't be able to do this"; "you inspire me." "You'll beat this thing"; "You're such a warrior"

If you want to let him know you admire him, don't let the admiration be about the way he's dealh with his illness. Tell him he's a good dad, a considerate neighbour. Someone you are glad you met and are glad you had the time to know him. Tell him he is a good husband. That you hold him as a friend. Tell him how happy it is to see his kids run around with your kids screaming with laughter; that it's his children are a beautiful testament to him.

End of life is the time to say true, meaningful, kind things. Don't be embarrassed about it. It really will warm his heart and will make you feel like you handled your friend's situation with dignity and grace. You will feel that you did the right thing by him.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 2:31 PM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

You might find it interesting to watch a few episodes of 'The Big C' - the lead role has cancer and a dear friend of hers has cancer and dies in episode 12 (season 2). Yes it is only a TV show, it echoes what people are saying: share, spend time, laugh together. Don't force yourself on anyone who is sick/dying goes without saying.
posted by travelwithcats at 2:44 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

My grandma passed away from cancer about three weeks ago. A few days before she died, she suddenly realized that a bunch of people (family and friends) had been dropping by unexpectedly. My family is huge - 34 first cousins and over 60 great-grandkids - so it would be hard to ignore.

"Why is everyone coming over? I'm not dying!" she told my dad. But he knew better, and so did all of the visitors. So they kept coming and she passed away pretty quickly. I live 2,000 miles away and wasn't able to visit, but from what I heard, everyone just had normal chitchat with her until her last night, when her kids gathered around and sang her old church hymns while she passed on.

My dad told me that for three weeks there was literally someone rubbing her back 24/7 because there were so many people who just wanted to make her more comfortable.

So just be there as much as you want to. Be nice. Talk about things you'd talk to anyone about and don't feel coerced into being depressed. Those are my suggestions.
posted by tacodave at 4:05 PM on May 16, 2012

I think the above is good advice, that you don't have to do or be anything in particular, only to let him know that you care (and being there conveys that pretty solidly - how much more explicitly you say so is up to you.) On the other hand, if you can, being open to letting him talk about his fear and disappointment could be a great gift to him. I know you are saying that you are not that close to him, but I really hope there were some distant people who let my Mum talk about her fears when she was dying of cancer - although I tried, I was just not able to be that person for her, as my own distress got in the way. Bottom line - best if you can read the situation and be cheerful if he needs encouragement or serious if he needs someone to lean on. But, if you dread such a conversation so much that you'd consider staying away, just go and say whatever you can, because being there is the most valuable thing of all.
posted by Cheese Monster at 1:18 AM on May 17, 2012

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