What are some good books to help a friend through mother's cancer?
August 22, 2018 5:25 AM   Subscribe

A very good friend of mine's mother was diagnosed with stage four cancer and is not expected to survive more than a year. I have a hard time in knowing the right words because I have not had the experience of losing someone very close to me. I was looking for books to buy her to help her deal with the feelings she is feeling right now, and ways to prepare her. Also, I was looking for a book that they could fill in together with memories- sort of the books, why I love you when you fill in the blanks- but something a mother and daughter could do together to remember happy times together and something she could keep for memories. Most of the books I'm finding are after death and coping with that, but not the whole process in living with your loved one knowing they will be passing away in a few months and how to make the best of the time. Any good suggestions for these?
posted by MamaBee223 to Human Relations (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
When I went through this with my (beloved) mother-in-law memory books just seemed like homework and a chore. That was my mother-in-law's reaction. She was tired and weak frequently and I think it would have been a lot to ask. We did read "the Emperor of All Maladies" together, but it's not a cheerful book from the cancer-having perspective, though it was really informative.

What would have been really good was gift certificates for services that would have held back some of the mundane parts of living that can get in the way of spending time together. Things like a cleaning service or meal service would have been really welcome. The best times were just sitting together with my baby during those rare times when nothing needed to be done.
posted by Alison at 6:40 AM on August 22, 2018 [13 favorites]

Oh man I feel you. My mom lived with Stage Four cancer for ten years and it was really a slog. The things that were the most helpful were exactly what Alison says above, a combination of things that would help us spend time together (food, movies, house cleaning, laundry) and things for ME, the person not with cancer, to sort of get back into my life for a while (the same stuff, but not directed towards the sick person).

Everyone deals with their cancer differently so it may be worth trying to take some cues from your friend. The most helpful thing for me was people who did not try to prepare me but who just asked after my mom and sometimes listened to me complain a little (having a relative with cancer is hard, and not in the same way having cancer is hard) but could then shift gears and help me live my life at the same time. Also people who could help my mom with some of the stuff so I didn't have to (rides to places, often). Sometimes helping the close family member communicate with more distant family members can be a kindness, many people don't really grok the "comfort in, dump out" model and will burden your friend with their own feelings which may be hard for her. Being a friend to her to manage some of those feelings would also be helpful.

Sorry I don't have a lot of book recommendations, a lot will be really personal (like there are great Cooking with Cancer books or ones that address cancer with humor if that's your thing, or famous people talking about their cancers). What I wanted the most when I wasn't with my mom was to basically not hear about cancer at all (she was not a good patient and it was a TMI situation from dawn to dusk) so you may have to play this in a slightly more "wait and see" way. But being a friend, being present, being there to listen, are all hugely important things.
posted by jessamyn at 7:05 AM on August 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

As a book person I totally understand your default to "get a good book," but it's not the right approach in this circumstance. Your friend and her mother will have better ideas than you about what might work for her, and giving generalized "I heard this was good" books is just going to seem like homework and a chore, as Alison says. Concentrate on practical help like food and offers to drive, and of course be there to listen as needed. Cancer is a horrible slog and you can only know what you need when you're there. Be attentive and flexible, and show them your love as best you can. Good luck.
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on August 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

If books are a thing for you and your friend I think I'd focus more on books that she'd enjoy as an escape. There's a lot of sitting around with cancer patients and while this can be a way for people to spend time with their loved one, if the ill person is dozing an absorbing book can be a great way for the person to take a mental break while still being physically there if needed.
posted by *becca* at 7:41 AM on August 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.
posted by mumkin at 7:58 AM on August 22, 2018

Storycorps (you may have heard some of their stories on public radio or podcasts) has a resource kit for DIY interviewing. If she's not technical and you are, maybe offer to help get and learn to use some audio and video tools on her phone for capturing some memories.

But be very careful about presumptive or prescriptive gifts if you're not absolutely sure she wants those things. Caregivers get a ton of messaging about how they "should" go about their business, often with overtones of how they should never be ungrateful or tired or sad. If this is really about you not knowing the right words, understand that "I'm so sorry this is happening" are good and meaningful words that are difficult to load with implications. Offering practical help to take some of the stress off her is likely more meaningful than a book she will not have time or heart to read right now.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:13 AM on August 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

as my Mother became more ill, her memory started deteriorating, we did something like this

which is a UK initiative for people living with Dementia (PLWD). It was hugely cathartic because her illness created Liver encephalopathy (like mlidly buzzed) so as we went through images and pictures in the scrapbook, as she became more ill, we could see she gravitated more towards certain images and memories.

I will never forget the smile of bliss on her disease -racked face when I repeated something she had always been proud off. " Mam, you have such lovely skin!" the only thing my mother would admit to being proud of as a working class woman, obese from teenhood was her skin.

It literally creates chills and goosebumps to recall how in extremis while she was actively dying in her own bed (which we'd really committed to as a family) that in the worst of temporary pain I could trigger an angelic smile from her by saying, 'Mam, thanks for giving us the the most beautiful skin!!! Everyone envied you!!" (not true but as she disappeared before our eyes I knew this would please her, ignored and often abused her whole adult life due to her obesity..... I created a fake story in her head that calmed her...)

Encourage her family to find that thing she's really pleased/proud about and mention how that thing enriched THEIR lives, make sure they know the scents of her childhood and more importantly the songs of her childhood and get a tape together for the long, dreary awful times.....
posted by Wilder at 9:18 AM on August 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is a very kind impulse on your part, but I agree with other people that you might want to find a different way to help.

I’m the daughter of a mother who ended up dying of Stage 4 cancer, and while I appreciated the intent of books people gave me around that time, the fact is that dealing with grief is such a complicated and personal process that almost no one was able to tell from the outside what kind of books would help or comfort me. I would have been really upset to get some of the books you’re describing, tbh, because I had a really complicated relationship with my mom, and generic “mom and daughter” type gifts/products generally made me feel terrible about not fitting into some Hallmark version of that relationship. Also, my method of coping was very escapism-based, and getting a book on grieving in advance would have felt like a rebuke (even though obviously no one would ever mean it that way).

Things people did for me when my mom was in in-home hospice that made me feel loved while I stayed with her:

-took care of my house back home without asking me first— mowing the lawn, talking to my landlord on my behalf when I was late with rent one time (I was away for several months)
-organizing a week’s worth of meals when I got back after the funeral
-letting me talk to them about garbage reality tv shows they had never even seen when I needed a break from dealing
-took up a collection from our group of friends to send a bouquet to the funeral (no one asked me for details or info— it appeared like magic)
-giving me free access to their pets. "Hi, I need to pet a dog, can I come over?" "Door's open!"
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:06 AM on August 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is NOT the answer you're looking for here because it's the sort of film everyone should watch before a terminal illness becomes something they need to deal with. The thing that prepared me most for my dad's sickness and death was The Silverlake Life: The View From Here (my iPad refuses to paste the direct link for some reason). It shows you how sick you have to get to die - valuable context.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:39 PM on August 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just as another data point: I lost my Dad to cancer in 2013. An avid reader since kindergarten, multiple books always in my purse, couldn't imagine a day without books, just wouldn't happen. Books were the answer to anything, excitement, boredom, joy, sadness.

When Dad entered stage four, I wasn't able to read anything but a handful of comfort books that I had almost memorized. Anything else, I just couldn't. It was a year since Dad died until I was able to read anything new. I got a few grief books as gifts that year and discarded them unread a few years later. I couldn't bear to look at them. The personal accounts of grief, I was too raw for, and the comforting ones all sounded so tone-deaf to me.

What ended up saving my sanity was getting a regular (as in weekly) cleaning service. It was like having real actual weight lifted off my back. It wasn't just one less chore. It was a feeling of being somehow cared for. Even though I was paying for it myself. Just seeing that my environment was cared after, the dirty fork that I seemed to have been physically incapable of carrying to and washing in the sink now suddenly clean and put away, was like getting a hug every time I walked into my clean apartment.
posted by M. at 12:36 AM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is a little tangential to your question, but this article on the Ring Theory of kvetching was helpful when I was in a similar situation.

In a nutshell, the afflicted person is the center. (there's a graphic at the above link or via google image search) Everyone they interact with is in one of several concentric rings around them; the closer/more intimate the relationship, the closer to center they are. People in a given ring can kvetch to each other or anyone in an outer ring (depending on their capacity, of course). But towards people in an inner ring, offer comfort only, no kvetching. Mnemonic: Comfort In, Dump Out.

That was helpful to me in determining my role in the situation. Then it was a matter of figuring out what comforts were wanted, and when. When the subject of the afflicted person came up with other people, I shared The Ring Theory with them, and I think it gave more clarity on how they could act well on their care for the ill person, and manage their own sadness and discomfort.
posted by dancing leaves at 4:49 AM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hmm, yeah, the book I most read (and re-read) when I was watching my mum die of stage 4 cancer was a regency romance by Georgette Heyer (Cotillion, which I still enjoy even though it will always remind me of that horrible time). You sound like a really kind and thoughtful friend and I am not trying to dis your impulse. I do think a lot of "have deep and meaningful conversations while you can"- type advice is a little out of step with the reality of being terminally ill, i.e. someone who is tired and in pain might not want to have Hard Work conversations, obviously that is personal though.

One book I did like was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. It's a YA book about a boy who's losing his mum to cancer and it did help me a lot despite being older than its target audience.

We got a huge amount of practical help from my mum's friends and family which I really appreciated. Stuff like - doing housework/gardening, driving my mum to appointments or to the beach, bringing round food made with my mum's esoteric dietary requirements, taking care of some of the practical stuff so we could spend time together. One regret I personally have is that I wish I had more photos of me and my mum together, but again that's obviously personal - your friend's mum may not want photos taken when she's really unwell.

You sound like a really kind friend who is wanting to get this right. Death from cancer can be really ugly and it can be very lonely being around people who can only take a sanitised version of what you and your loved ones are going through. I think it says a lot that you want to be there at all. Take care of yourself and good for you for being there for your friend.
posted by the cat's pyjamas at 6:59 AM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

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