Talking to the dying
January 7, 2008 3:12 PM   Subscribe

A good friend just received a brain cancer diagnosis with an estimated one year survival time. She wants to talk about death and time. She thinks I have something to teach or tell her worth hearing. I'd like to be helpful, but have no confidence in my ability to say or do anything meaningful. What I've said so far she appreciates. What can I read that might help me frame discussions. I don't need pop psychology stuff, or advice dealing with the health care system or funeral arrangements. I like the idea of Zen notions of letting go but am too ignorant to know what to say. Advice, experience, suggestions for gathering information please.
posted by NorthCoastCafe to Human Relations (65 answers total) 219 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing I ever do is link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy -- I don't know how familiar you are with philosophy, but at least it can offer you a better idea of where to start? So, here is the SEP's entry on death. It's dry, but it may lead you far.

Talking about death can involve talking about many different things.. The most common of which is the meaning of life. That usually leads people to talk about existentialism. Again, I don't know how much you know already, but "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Camus is my favorite existentialist piece. (here's a link to Wikipedia about it.)

Another famous piece is Thomas Nagel's "Death." Plato/Socrates also talks a bit about whether or not we should fear death (maybe in Phaedo? But, I'm not sure).

I'm not sure what you mean by "death and time." If you elaborate, I (or, more likely, someone else)may be able to offer more links to things written by people wiser than I.
posted by Ms. Saint at 3:24 PM on January 7, 2008

Oh, and... I'm sorry to hear about your friend. I hope for the best year for the two of you.
posted by Ms. Saint at 3:29 PM on January 7, 2008

As far as buddhism ("zen") goes I reccomend anything by Thich Nhat Hahn. Some quotes. The idea of mindfullness and awareness of the present is a very important one in buddhist practice.

Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.

posted by phrontist at 3:29 PM on January 7, 2008 [5 favorites]

Also, I wish you and your friend the best in an unimaginably tough situation.
posted by phrontist at 3:31 PM on January 7, 2008

In the same spirit as Ms. Saint, let me also recommend a book called the Mind's I which is as entertaining as is it thought-provoking.
It is edited by Hofstadter and Daniel Dennet and contains essays by Borges, Turing, Nagel, Searle and Dawkins among others..
posted by vacapinta at 3:32 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

How to Raise an Ox.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:43 PM on January 7, 2008

See this previous post
posted by lalochezia at 4:03 PM on January 7, 2008

Agree with above posts. It can be a pleasant relief to do something with your hands. Does she have any hobbies? Doing something creative, or even mindless, with your hands can take the pressure off of trying to make every minute count (which can be exhausting if it's non-stop).

Are there any children in her life? It might be wonderful to spend some time with a child, teaching them a simple skill.

My thoughts are with you and your friend, and I hope you'll update us.
posted by frosty_hut at 4:03 PM on January 7, 2008

Why do you think she is expecting you to have something to teach her? Think about what she sees in you that leads her to expect this. Don't sell short your own insights - she obviously thinks a great deal of you, and wants to hear what you have to say.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:18 PM on January 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

My wife died earlier this year. She had had Stage 4 ovarian cancer (for ten years). The five year survival rate for Stage 4 ovarian is 10 percent. Your friend's doctor is giving her a mean estimation. Her situation may, indeed almost certainly, will be different. One of the many things I learned is that doctors go by means. The real world does not live and die by means. It was not the ovarian cancer that killed my wife. The cancer spread to her lungs and thence to her brain. To my (and her) surprise, the doctors were quite sanguine about her brain tumors. At the time of her death they were treating them and there was some progress (with the relatively minor side effect of some short-term memory loss). In other words, brain cancer is now treatable. (Incidentally, it was the lung tumors that killed my wife.) In short, do not give up. Do not assume that that one year is set in stone. Be optimistic.

Having said all that, my wife knew she was going to die. What helped her? I would like to hope that it was support, total support, from myself, our daughter and friends. That is the most important. I saw it with her and with others. With the support of loved ones, it is easier. Without that support, it is very hard. Secondly, she accepted that she was going to die, that she had had a good life, done many of the things she wanted to do. She thought often about our life together and we talked about it all the time. We are not in any way religious but just talking about the good times made it easier for her and certainly easier for me.

I can recommend no books to you on this. You know her best. But, above all, give her support. Don't give up - either of you. Miracles do happen, whether you believe in a god or not. And you just have to try to accept when the time has come, accept it as best you can. Good luck.
posted by TheRaven at 4:21 PM on January 7, 2008 [29 favorites]

Pema Chodron writes from a Tibetan Buddhism perspective, and her essays, books, etc. are very accessible. Here's a short essay entitled Hopelessness and Death. She also has a good book called When Things Fall Apart, which (IIRC) doesn't deal specifically with dying but personal tragedy and suffering in general.
posted by desjardins at 4:36 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The mother of a friend of mine wrote Recovering From Mortality: Essays From A Cancer Limbo Time. She was one of the strongest and kindest people I have ever known and I thought that those traits really shone through in that book. It addresses the issues that you are asking about in a really straight-forward and clear-sighted way. I can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by ND¢ at 4:40 PM on January 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

A few weeks before my mom died (from cancer), she called me very late one night and said "I'm not afraid. I understand now." It's been more than 10 years, and I have moments when I get a glimpse of understanding what she meant. Kind of.

What helped me tremendously after she died, and what might help you and your friend in this process, is reading Peter Mattheissen's The Snow Leopard. From the book:
"Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere -- in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight."
And from the linked article:
The story was of Matthiessen's expedition into the Dolpo region of the Nepalese Himalayas, which also borders Tibet. He had been invited to accompany George Schaller on the zoologist's trip to study the rare Himalayan blue sheep. Matthiessen was a student of Buddhism at the time, and such a trip would give him the chance to trek among remote and ancient Tibetan Buddhists, to see a region of Nepal that few Westerners had penetrated and possibly glimpse the most elusive of all great cats, the ice-eyed snow leopard.

A year prior to the trip, the writer's wife had died of cancer. "The Snow Leopard" is an excruciatingly beautiful and honest account of what turned into a tough spiritual and physical journey. With the energy that great travel writers have coursing through their veins, Matthiessen walked me, pace by pace, over those mountain passes, through the precepts of Buddhism and the valleys of his soul.
It's an amazing, amazing book. It's soaked in beautiful writing about nature, and the nature of spirit.

Best of luck and many good wishes to you and your friend.
posted by rtha at 5:01 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this is too heady or philosophical, but my gf looking over my shoulder suggests the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It describes the transition states after death.
posted by bassjump at 5:11 PM on January 7, 2008

Speaking of Douglas Hofstadter, you might want to consider reading his most recent book, I am a Strange Loop, his meditation on self, memory and meaning after the death of his wife.
posted by jefftrexler at 5:45 PM on January 7, 2008

Hi dear NorthCoastCafe. I'm facing the death by cancer thing too, while not knowing how long I have to go, the prognosis was 2 1/2 years ago 3 years. I could be and am hoping to be around longer.

"death and time", a deep subject, lol.

John Donne's beautiful meditation:

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Like a fish jumping out of the sea and back into the water, our lives arise out of that great ocean of existence and returns into it.

Even though, as a Buddhist, I've thought about death as part of my spiritual practice for 34 + years, it's not an easy topic to approach and very few people have the spine, the guts or the balls to talk about it.

I'm proud of you for doing this for your friend. She is profoundly fortunate to know you and that you care enough about her to face her dying and death straightforwardly. It's not like any of us learned this stuff in school and it's so not talked about. And it's not like anybody is not going to die.

Brave MeFite, Brandon Blatcher, has helped me in the last month and nudged me to come to this thread. Recently I posted this, How To Talk To a Friend With Cancer on the blue. It might help you. Crazy Sexy Cancer might be useful to you and your friend too.

Another post I did on the blue about some interesting animation videos depicting the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I've always liked The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo by Francesca Fremantle

Brain cancer is hard because the brain will be impacted and though the body may live, your friend's mind may not be coherent at some point.

Let's see, where to start. Backwards...after death. Talking with your friend about what happens after her physical death will be a way of facing the finality and in a compassionate way, looking at how others will feel, the reality details, so she is not left out of the actual, physical process.

Maybe making a checklist of possibilities and see what she's interested in? Such as:

Making a statement for people left behind. This was a brilliant one on the blue recently. Andrew Olmstead's pre-death statement. Really inspiring. A beautiful last testament.

Making a video for people left behind?

Getting the will and living will ready.

What would she like to do with her remains? Has a funeral place been contacted for the basic postmortem stuff? Does she want to offer body parts to medicine?

What kind of service would she like after she dies? Do the immediate family members in her life know what she would like?

Who will pack up her belongings and those that are not given specifically to people, what will be done with them?

When her mind starts to go, where would she like to stay until death comes? For how long on life support (see living will).

Has a hospice been contacted?

What would be her ideal death, if she could have her druthers? I saw a show on a woman who plays harp for dying people. Apparently there are a few people who play "palliative music", like Carol Joy, whose music is not my cup of tea but you get the idea. I love harp music and would like to die listening to that. I'm torn between that and Jimi Hendrix. It might be good if you asked her to think of pieces of music she really likes.

The last sense to go before dying is hearing. Music may be a source of comfort to her, even even she is not thinking towards the end with a complete engine.

Signs and symptoms of approaching death.

I like this site: Signs of Dying with Suggested Cares from the Amitabh Hospice Service.

Now to the psychological-philosophical aspects, on that same site there are related Buddhist links and a really lovely page here Responding to the Needs of the Dying, which I think will help you both.

Recently I saw Bergman's last film, Saraband. In it Bergman talks via one of his wounded characters, Henrik, about how it is easier to die thinking there is somebody on the other side of the gate, waiting to greet one. In my mind that is my dear late father. It comforts me, however childlike that may seem, and however I do not actually believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, unlike most of my fellow Buddhists, to think he's there to greet me. It's an emotional thing I guess, the child part that is afraid of death.

Then, emotionally, it would be so nice to be held, to really let the tears out. I think that is a gift you can offer your friend periodically to let her really cry in your arms and be held, to feel that instinctual sense of not being alone in this, of your being there for her.

Paradoxically, people often die when others have left the room as if space were needed to make the final exit.

As for attachment to this life, if there were none it would be void of caring and nihilistic. With too much attachment life is suffocating and grossly materialistic. Impermanence is part of the journey.

Some books are inspiring and uplifting in discussing impermanence, such as The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, especially because they are not such a fingerwagging lecture than an appreciation.

On Death and Dying
What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families
by Elisabeth Kübler Ross, M.D.

Bowlby's four stages

The Last Word: Talking with the Dying Graces the Living

Preparing for approaching death

Hope something there is useful for you and your friend.
posted by nickyskye at 5:57 PM on January 7, 2008 [127 favorites]

Zen Buddhism is not specifically comfort for the dying - it's a practice rooted in living. I'm not sure what you/she are looking for - there are pop-Zen quotes and books, some of which are quite good and have been linked to here, but ultimately you cannot simply say something poetic about cherry blossoms and expect it to resonate. You likely knew that already, of course.

If her interest in Zen is sincere, then perhaps she'd benefit from learning a bit about zazen (Zen meditation/sitting) practice, and assistance in finding a sangha (group) to sit with?
posted by ellF at 6:07 PM on January 7, 2008

What an outstanding outpouring of intelligent and insightful answers from this community! As a terminal cancer patient myself, I have found that I want to talk about how I'm feeling, and express myself, however it makes others uncomfortable. I truly think your friend is asking (in a roundabout, unconcious manner) what you think not only because she trusts you (how lucky you are, my friend!) but also to elicit a dialogue so that SHE herself may express how SHE is feeling. I have found that "The Dying Time" by Joan Furman was a good resource for caregivers, and also, "To Die Well" was a practical and no nonsense guide to dignity in death. I wish you and your friend the very best and peace. I only wish I had a friend like you to help me through this horrible time.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 6:56 PM on January 7, 2008 [14 favorites]

Conversations with Maurie helped someone I know.
But it's not about cancer, just life, death, everything.

I'm sorry for your friend. And you.
A very dear friend of mine hasn't got much longer either.

I just make time with her a priority and we discuss whatever she wants to discuss.

I always ask about her stuff when we meet in person for any period of time.

Not necessarily quick chats on the phone.

When I do discuss it, I wait till a natural space in the conversation and ask..."I remember you said you were having another x test. How did that go? "

I'm Australian, and she's Welsh. We both have very dark senses of humour. Not sure if you and your friend do. We laugh a fair bit about the cancer. I keep telling her that I've seen her episode of House and that it's not cancer, it's worms. Or hypochondria. We have quite a few in-jokes about the worms.

I digress.

Conversations with Maurie is well worth a read.
posted by taff at 8:27 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dear Sushma, seconding what you said and I'm very sorry you are also dealing with late stage cancer.

A wonderful hospice nurse I met some years ago told me that it's common people in America abandon those who are dying and that hospice nurses offer the dying person something important, often simply by being there to rub the dying person's hand. I think this hardship in facing the dying and expressing feelings around the dying process are really common in the West.

It was so hard to find any friend willing to keep me company in the feeling part of either dealing with cancer or facing death. I've felt deeply bitter that many of my close friends have truly behaved abominably after I was diagnosed and told them, most of them poofing into thin air with cowardice. Now, writing that, I realize I need to let that go.

I feel extremely lucky to have found a couple of deeply loving and kind MeFites -Brandon Blatcher, as I said and madamjujujive- who have helped me in this. There are so many complex feelings that have come up, some I didn't expect, which have been prompted in part because of MeFite threads, like facing that I don't believe in reincarnation or an afterlife and yet that doesn't mean there cannot be an elegance in facing death, spiritual feelings too. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with self-pity and wish I didn't.

You said: I have found that I want to talk about how I'm feeling, and express myself, however it makes others uncomfortable

Would you consider sharing in this thread some of the feelings you might like to express?
posted by nickyskye at 9:00 PM on January 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding LobsterMitten's confusion. Unless there is something important you've left out, it seems to me that your friend trusts you and believes that you're an intelligent, thoughtful person she can talk to about something that has become very important in her life. I wouldn't necessarily rush out and read up on any particular theory of life or death. What I would think is more important is to be as honest and open with your friend as you possibly can, and hopefully you can help her through this process.

Good luck to you and your friend.
posted by Horselover Fat at 9:04 PM on January 7, 2008

I found working links for the videos that nickysky posted above, scroll down to the very bottom .
posted by hortense at 9:40 PM on January 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Five people you meet in heaven is a lovely book. So sorry about your friend.
posted by JujuB at 10:18 PM on January 7, 2008

Check out No Death, No Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh.
posted by hannahq at 10:27 PM on January 7, 2008

I've recommended it in another thread -- I really like the essay "In the Presence of Death," by Christopher Bamford. He describes his experience as his wife prepares to die. I found it in the Best Spiritual Writing 2000, and (if you can ignore the pink colors), you can see a full-text reprint on p. 12 of this newsletter [pdf]. There is another essay that I'm trying to remember that deals even more with the concept "letting go" and will post a link to if I can figure out how to find it. Along the way, I came across this: The Art of Letting Go: Writing, Dying, and Mom, if you have not seen this essay. One of my favorite movies on death is The Shadowlands. This thread may also be some help.

I agree with those who say your friend put her trust in you for a good reason, so don't worry too much about what to say, just talk to her. Best wishes.
posted by salvia at 10:32 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

hortense, Good find! You're a Google fu genius! wow.

Thanks for the heads up, I see that Google/YouTube has taken down those animation clips, which were narrated by Leonard Cohen, illustrated beautifully by Ishu Patel. So cool you found a free version hiding there at the bottom of that page. Don't think there is anything as good as that on the web, a video really discussing death.

The entire film, the first half depicting real people facing dying and the second half discussing the transitional states of mind after death, the Bardo, on DVD for 25 bucks.
posted by nickyskye at 10:41 PM on January 7, 2008

Randy Pausch is dying of cancer right now, but palliative treatment has bought him some desperately needed time with his young family. She might like to read about him.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's books will also give her something to think about, although she may not agree with them.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 10:53 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

NorthCoastCafe, you said, I'd like to be helpful, but have no confidence in my ability to say or do anything meaningful.

I wanted to know a bit more about you, apart from the brave kindness and generosity of your AskMe question. So I looked on your MeFite profile, checked your website. You just seem like an awesome person honeybun and I'd like to encourage you to have more confidence in your ability. I think the answers are already in you and that you're a saying meaningful kind of things in the right way kind of person.

You asked what could you read that might help you frame discussions? A hospice nurse I met once told me this is an exceptionally good book, I couldn't remember the name until just now. I think it might be something in the right direction:
Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying
by Maggie Callanan (Author), Patricia Kelley (Author)
posted by nickyskye at 11:05 PM on January 7, 2008

You, your friend, or someone else in this thread might find this essay comforting/thought-provoking/enraging/dull/yourimpressionhere. My friend Greta wrote it; it's called Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to do With God. (nickyskye, you made a FPP about this blog a while back, so you might've seen this entry. Or not.)
posted by rtha at 11:26 PM on January 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

rtha, no, I hadn't read that and so enjoyed Greta's thoughtful and feelingful blog. Thanks very much. That's a beautiful piece of writing on this topic and I like the ways she lays the article out on the page with pictures. Pictures are good punctuation points I find in reading a deep essay like that. I need little visual resting spots, kind of like mental park benches.
posted by nickyskye at 12:21 AM on January 8, 2008

I don't know if you're looking for books, of if this is even what you're looking for, but I found You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought: A Book for People with Any Life-Threatening Illness-Including Life really helpful. It's available in full at that link.
posted by Solomon at 3:03 AM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

While I hope you find some useful ideas here to discuss with your friend, it's worth noting that Buddhism is primarily a practice to do rather than a set of ideas to talk about. For the purpose of learning to die peacefully, there is far more benefit in learning to actually meditate than in talking over the ideas of others who have meditated. There are meditations which specifically address the inevitability of death and prepare one to experience it peacefully: long as you are able to survive, meditation will improve the quality of your life, so that you can view pain and illness with equanimity and learn from them. When the time comes to go, when the doctors have to throw up their hands in helplessness, the skill you have been developing in your meditation is the one thing that won't abandon you. It will enable you to handle your death with finesse. Even though we don't like to think about it, death is going to come no matter what, so we should learn how to stare it down. Remember that a death well handled is one of the surest signs of a life well lived.
If your friend is interested in Buddhist ideas about death, she might find it helpful to attend a Buddhist group and actually learn to meditate. I wouldn't worry too much about the denomination, Zen Buddhist or otherwise. The death meditations are fundamental, and common to all the major denominations. (The monk I quoted is Theravadin, for instance.)
posted by Coventry at 4:11 AM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

I took a course on Death and Dying in college, and aside from the typical Elizabeth Kubler Ross selections, we read a text called "The Path Ahead: Readings in Death and Dying." I found it very helpful, as a collection of information from all over the world addressing the ways different cultures deal with death.

If I were to talk to someone about death, especially someone who had approached me looking for an answer of some sort, I would begin by saying that there is no "one" answer. That there are as many answers as there are people. And that together, you two can find her answer. As the title of the book I reccomended suggests, it isn't an event. It is a journey. Your friend is fortunate to have you for that journey. And you are fortunate to have been invited on your friend's journey.

posted by greekphilosophy at 6:28 AM on January 8, 2008

Wow what a wonderful thread and necessary discussion. I plan to go through and re-read much of this when I have more time because there are so many thoughtful answers, so please pardon if some of my response is repetitive.

But I wanted to repeat one of nickyskye's comments above that you already have much of this answer in you. Be there. When the conversation comes up stop yourself if you start to think: here we are talking about DEATH... That makes it so big and foreign. Just listen like you were discussing any other conversation between friends. Hear what she is saying. You know this. It is in you.

This is such an interesting conversation because so many cultures have a disconnected approach to death when it is really a circular part of life. Who knows what happens with death. It's a transition to something else - maybe that's better, maybe it's nothing, maybe it's something we cannot even begin to grasp.

I'm an oncology RN and this subject is close to me right now. You will want to make sure you are taking care of your own emotional health through this. These conversations with your friend will help. When a patient dies I often feel relief for them - their pain has ended. It is the family and friends that are still here that make my heart ache. I cannot comprehend that loss they feel, but I do think some of their pain is in the belief that death has cheated them. They were wronged by it.

Considering death as an inclusive part of life is an ever evolving conversation. It will change and morph.

As for book recommendations I'd suggest The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Some dismiss it as new-agey and pop because a lot of celebrities have been pictured carrying it around, but it's an easy read and a great introduction to what are generally thought of as zen notions towards life (and conversely, death).

Best wishes to you and your friend.
posted by dog food sugar at 7:46 AM on January 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

I do think some of their pain is in the belief that death has cheated them. They were wronged by it.

Considering death as an inclusive part of life is an ever evolving conversation. It will change and morph.

Seconding the wisdom of those brilliant statements. So beautifully said!

Major respect for you being an oncology nurse, dog food sugar. It's got to be hard for an oncology nurse, really hard. Man, have you got cojones. Yes, being an onc nurse, like a fireman, for example, it would be essential to really take care of your feelings. Would love to know if in your surfing on the web you've found good websites dealing with cancer related issues that you like or found supportive to you, the patients or people around the patient?

Your comment prompted lots of thinking. In the journey towards my own death, all the friends I've known near at hand only seem to be considering their emotional health, so much so that they cannot be bothered to make a phone call. Ever. Or they send a birthday card, packed with loving thoughts, so my heart pops open with love and yearning to talk with them, but the card comes once a year and nothing else. And this from a friend I saw at least once a week and spoke with on the phone with regularly for years. When I try to reach out to them there's a wall. They can't make the time to call, email or anything else. Just poof. This happened with a number of beloved friends after the cancer dx. Or it's the sort of brief and distancing pat on the head thing, I feel like I'm on a checklist. Called the dying person, check. Next.

I see how hard it is for others. But dammit.

Maybe it's some ancient loss they're living with and my ill health, facing death just triggers that? The moment I tell people I have cancer they immediately tell me of everyone they know who died of it. What are they thinking!? In that way I feel as if I just remind them of another, more significant, dead person. And my job is to console them about their more significant dead person.

Or just that death feels like a wrong and they want nothing to do with that icky, alien thing, which happens to other people and has to be spoken about in whispers, as if it were something to be ashamed about. Or dying/death is a drama.

I think that they feel they are being wronged by death, cheated, that it is an injustice. In the documentary Crazy, Sexy Cancer, one of the first things the author talks about is to allow oneself to feel the unfairness of the diagnosis. In a way that addresses the issue up front. Yet, is being born fair? Is living fair? It's interesting this issue of fairness when it comes to death or serious illness. I think there is a huge element of feeling like the good in life is a reward and the bad is punishment.

Or that the person dying deserved the death sentence for wrongs they committed. I think this is all part of what is unspoken about death and makes it hard for people to talk about when the reality is being faced. Intellectually it isn't thought of like that but emotionally death is treated like that unless the person dying is really old. And even then it can be ugly.

Years ago my 98 year old neighbor was put in a remote nursing home by her not so nice relatives. When I went to visit her for her 100th birthday she had been sadly neglected. It was awful, the elderly or mentally not there people were treated hardly better than pre-cadavers to park around the tv set or who had bedsheets to change, a pre-death factory.

Huh, this seems to be a facing death week, in thoughts and in the flesh. While writing this comment my step-mother called and told me my 84 year old godfather died this last Saturday, January 5th, a day before the anniversary of my dad's death at 51, 30 years ago. My godfather's wife had also just died 4 weeks before that. I called him during the San Diego fires, in early November, as their house was in the path of the fire but escaped. Their son and daughter in law took on caring for two elderly parents at home for several years, one with Alzheimer's and the other who had several strokes. I'm proud of them for having the emotional stamina to do that. Will call his son now.
posted by nickyskye at 11:44 AM on January 8, 2008 [5 favorites]

I see how hard it is for others. But dammit.

It's sad that we're so wrapped up in our own lives it's hard to make the best adjustments when someone gets sick. Life is so busy now. I hear patients say that when they got sick they "found out who their friends were." They say this with weighted sadness in their voice. It's not just death we have all out of whack.

One of the things I like about the writer of the Power of Now book I mentioned is he talks about how we're all sick in a way. We're so emotionally disconnected in modern life. We are so involved in our own pain that we unknowingly inflict pain in others or we attract/awaken the latent pain and anger in others. Don't get me wrong - I'm not comparing cancer to emotional unawareness. But I like his idea that we're so far from personal enlightenment that we don't realize the pain we create in others. Sometimes I think real physical illness makes people address this. They begin this journey of their own enlightenment - their own meaning of life, but they are surrounded by a culture that is so far away from all that. A culture that almost celebrates that unawareness.

You know what's funny is why I picked the field. Of all the hospitals I worked in as a student before graduating, it was the huge cancer hospital nearby that I felt the best vibe. Maybe it sounds weird but there was a positive approach that I didn't see elsewhere. A fighter's mentality that if cancer wasn't outright beaten, then the life left was valued each day. I really liked that. Maybe I'm nuts but I felt a similar positive-ness with AIDS when it was a death sentence in the late 80's and early 90's. Life was lived, death was addressed. I don't see that with many other illnesses and with general aging. I'm also lucky in that I see a lot of people surviving cancer. Just before Christmas we had a patient with "ocular involvement," where the tumor behind his eye had taken away his vision for years. He was getting chemo and his tumor was shrinking and his eyesight came back. How beautiful is that?! Every time we came into the room he would read the clock to us to the minute: "It is now nine fifty eight." We loved that! It's these little poetic moments that make me love LOVE this job.

My condolences for your godfather.
posted by dog food sugar at 2:30 PM on January 8, 2008 [24 favorites]

"It is now nine fifty eight."

dang, who would think that sentence could make me cry? What a beautiful story dear dog food sugar! You are a beautiful soul. I so agreed with every word you said. Thanks for your wonderful comment.
posted by nickyskye at 2:44 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

nickyskye, how thoughtful for you to ask how I feel. I am rejuvinated I found this discussion, sad for Northcoastcafe's friend, and for other terminal patients who have posted in this forum. No one has asked me since my diagnosis how I felt. No one. My grown boys have literally ignored me, and like you my friends have entered another! Don't you wish we all had the money Kris Carr had to explore all those alternative treatments? I don't even have the time off of work to take chemo unless I use vacation days. I guess I'm just pissed off. This moment. Tomorrow I may be morose, the next I may be grateful.. it just would be nice to tell someone "I feel like POOP today!!" (but thanks for asking) I miss the physical beauty I once had, I mourn for that perfect chocolate cake and the exquisite sunset I would have seen from the Nile.

To make matters worse, my adult son became brain injured and now I am caretaker for him all by myself. Just two weeks ago, I considered suicide but deemed it to messy and maybe, just maybe that trip down the Nile may be in the near future......

I wish you well, my friend. :-)
posted by ~Sushma~ at 7:42 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

MeTa. (The good kind.)
posted by rtha at 8:43 PM on January 8, 2008

My father is a minister (retired, but he seems to work as much as he ever did) and I feel like one of the most important aspects of his job was spending time with people who were near death.

These people were not dying people or dead people to him. They were alive people who happened to have a much clearer understanding of something that is true about us all. Treating them as such might have been one of the most important things he did.

The phenomenon of friends and family checking out on people in this time is real and I'd posit another reason for it: people are scared. They're scared to see it. This is where we are all going and we know it, and we ignore it, but when we are face to face with it we can't ignore it. We're particularly bad about it in the USA; we put the old in nursing homes, the dying in hospitals, we avoid living with the natural outcome of life at almost any cost.

If you've ever had a good relationship with or admired a member of the clergy (of whatever faith) you might consider talking to them about it, whether or not you "buy" their particular system. They have a lot of experience with this.

What I've said so far she appreciates.

Have faith in yourself. It sounds like your friend doesn't want to hear the insights of the Zen Masters, she wants to hear what you have to say. Trust her instincts. Say what's in your heart. Don't be afraid to talk about how you're not sure you know what you're talking about. Nobody knows what they're talking about, not even "professionals." There are no professionals when it comes to death.

One more thing: this aspect of his job was often very tough on my dad. Take care of yourself and make sure you have your own support system to rely on.
posted by nanojath at 9:31 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have never been so proud to belong to a community than I am at this moment.

It's heartbreaking to hear the stories told of abandonment after diagnosis. I'm so sorry.

NorthCoast, I found it to be helpful to ask my friend for a list of his top 20 or so books. There will come a time when they can't read, and nobody should ever be without books. If you know their favorites, you can read them aloud.

From a things to read perspective, I found
Seeing the Difference - A Project on Viewing Death and Dying in Interdisciplinary Perspective: "Conversations on Death and Dying" gave me some insight that I hadn't had before I read it.
posted by dejah420 at 9:33 PM on January 8, 2008

I'm not dying but I have had to deal with a lot of death recently. For me, the best thing some one could do for me was to talk to me. Many folks shut down and stopped talking when I needed to talk the most. Death is scary for some folks.

What did I want to talk about? I don't know. I just wanted the option.

Some folks talked to me. What did we talk about? I don't really know. Sometimes it was about death but most of the time it was not. I do cherish a few hours talking about Wim Wenders movies, Ren and Stimpy, and The Simpsons, with an old friend.

You are her friend. Don't sweat the details. Just talk to her. Like water, you will both, as friends, find your level. Just talk.

And hugs to you ~Sushma~. Should you want to talk contact me via the email in my profile. We don't know each otner but I will listen.
posted by arse_hat at 9:38 PM on January 8, 2008

Hi again Sushma, been thinking about your last comment. What comes to mind is to offer you my cyber arms and shoulder, give you a big hug and let you cry. And maybe ask that you do some anger releasing, letting some fishwifeisms out. I may be wrong but I'm not sure the poop word really cuts it when releasing feelings about what you've been dealing with.

It's an outrage nobody has asked how you feel since you've faced this diagnosis. I just want to smack all the supposedly responsible adults around you. What is their problem? Dang!

I encourage you to express your feelings more. How do you feel?

Sometimes when I'm asked that there are so many feeling it's hard to get any out when they are all in a tangle. I guess just start somewhere.

Yes, I would *so* like to do the alternative treatments Kris Carr of Crazy, Sexy Cancer is doing. I would love, love, love to go to the Hippocrates Institute. That's a dream. I've heard that Cancer Treatment Centers of America does both, the traditional and complementary treatments. is an excellent complementary in conjunction with traditional medicine treatment site. Just for day dream sake.

Can't believe you can't do chemo except using vacation days. This is such an outrage. I'm so sorry Sushma. I was afraid my boss would find out I had cancer and fire me. My greatest fear was when I lost all my hair, went all lightbulby, that no eyebrows Uncle Fester look, lol. I thought for sure he'd dump me. It was a relief to get through radiation with the insurance.

ah, your grown boys. Having lost my dad to cancer when I was 24, I know how I didn't have the emotional maturity to ask him how he felt, the loss in my heart overwhelmed and paralyzed my faculty to express how I couldn't think about him dying. Yes, I talked with him, expressed my love but the elephant in the living room I couldn't face was talking with him about death, about his having cancer and he didn't offer anything either. I think you have to be the parent to them in this, lead them, perhaps one at a time, into having a discussion with you. Make an appointment with one, for 10 minutes. That's probably all the stamina he will have and you too. They may not be able to handle one gigantic discussion but may need to have several short discussions with you.

It's overwhelming to think that you're caretaking a brain injured son while you need caretaking yourself. I had a stroke in September 2005 and know that brain damage isn't fun. I found calcium citrate helped my nerves and blood vessels heal after the stroke (3 aneurysms). It helped relax me too. It might help your son? It's cheap.

I'd like to suggest something that might offer you comfort, it helped me. Cancer Hope Network. they give free phone therapy. So helpful!

And this may sound odd too coming from a Buddhist, but churches can offer help in times of crisis. Sometimes there are volunteers who help those in need, just to offer companionship. A local hospice may have ideas too. If you MeMail me and tell me your area, I'll do research for you and maybe I can find something practical to help you in your area? I don't know but if I can help that way it would be my pleasure.

I think suicidal ideation is natural when dealing with cancer. It certainly has been for me. And I can totally understand you've been having thoughts of suicide. You probably could do with some antidepressants. And hope. There will be a time to die. Not yet. Not that way.

As for trips down the Nile. As Mad Max said, "Wherever you go, there you are." I encourage you to find that beautiful space in your thoughts, to take a twilight walk this week, somewhere near that you like, to give yourself some peaceful time, for you.
posted by nickyskye at 10:09 PM on January 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

NorthCoastCafe, I've been in something like your position, with a good friend dying from pancreatic cancer. We spent a good deal of time together after her diagnosis, and I have a few thoughts from that time:

We talked about dying and what it might mean. Many times, actually. More often, though, we talked about life, and wondered about that. The important thing, I think, was that I let her frame the conversation. Having the conversation, on her terms, was more important, I think, than anything she may have ultimately concluded from it. Most often, after the initial flurry of questioning, she didn't even want to talk about dying so much as to know that she could. That the subject could be broached at any time she needed it - without having to. That we could continue The Conversation anytime she wanted to, but that we could also talk about anything else, or even some aspect of cancer, or sickness, or philosophy without automatically turning it into The Conversation. And for her, and this may or may not turn out to be true for your friend, it was also vitally important not to lose our sense of humor in the process. But that was just very much in character for my friend.

Another thing that seemed important to her over time was having dedicated time to not have to focus on cancer - only without having to waste the energy to ignore it, either, if that makes sense. So we did things together. Cooked. Played games. I took her and her mother to the art museum. It was hard because she was weak, and there was no pretending otherwise. But it was wonderful because it was new. New is good. New is life. We shared new books and new music - and not all of it deep. A lot of it. But not all of it.

And there was no elephant in the room because we weren't just avoiding a painful subject. We'd been over the subject. We could return to the subject any time. We just had too much living to do on those days to bother with it.

I guess what I'm saying is that I applaud you for being there for your friend, and I'm sure your research will benefit you both, but the real value is what you already seem to be providing: your time, your openness, and your friendship. Your willingness to stick through a difficult time. If your friend is asking for more of your time, then you are already doing the right things.

Thanks to you and to all who have shared here, and my best wishes to you all.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:12 PM on January 8, 2008 [6 favorites]

I spent a lot of time with my father watching the Food network and rubbing his back.

I have more to say, but I'm in tears, so later.

I have never more wished that I was actually in the same room with the people on the other "side" of this screen. nickyskye, ~Sushma~, please consider my virtual arms wrapped around you both right now.
posted by jokeefe at 10:34 PM on January 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Not in your original question NorthCoastCafe, but make sure you also get some support for yourself.

My great-aunt passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000. She was a very quiet lady, but she took the diagnosis as an opportunity to completely let go and, somewhat sadly, we (her extended family, she had no children of her own) all got to know a lot more about her than we had previously (which was wonderful -- she tended to get overshadowed by her sister, my nana). She was a Holocaust survivor, so a lot of the stuff that came out was pretty heavy going, in addition to the prospect of her immenent death.

About five or six of us were involved in looking after her and talking to her and listening to her over the 15 months from her diagnosis until she passed away and having each other as support was really helpful, especially just talking about some of the heavier stuff and getting it off our chests a bit. (It was also great to be around people who had nothing to do with the whole situation!)

Are you the sole support for your friend? Or are there others involved?

All the best.
posted by prettypretty at 11:07 PM on January 8, 2008

NorthernSky, just realized that you were the one who posted on the blue about the death of another young man from cancer, which had a powerful impact on my life about 2 years ago. We treat time like water. That was when I first commented on my own having cancer in MetaFilter.

Thank you once again for that post. You seem to have the ability to face this death by cancer thing well, I felt comforted by your post and it validates further for me that you already have in you what it takes to offer the spiritual friendship your friend needs.
posted by nickyskye at 11:31 PM on January 8, 2008

This may be a little left-field, but it does address time and death very precisely and profoundly: T.S. Eliot's The Four Quartets (online). It might be something to read alone, or together, or for you to read for insight and language. For example, from The Dry Salvages:

Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony
(Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding,
Having hoped for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things,
Is not in question) are likewise permanent
With such permanence as time has. We appreciate this better
In the agony of others, nearly experienced,
Involving ourselves, than in our own.
For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
But the torment of others remains an experience
Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops,
The bitter apple, and the bite in the apple.
And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

posted by Rumple at 11:35 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

oops. It was a post by NorthernSky, not NorthCoastCafe. sorry.
posted by nickyskye at 11:40 PM on January 8, 2008

dog food sugar: That's terrific that you're an oncology nurse!

My younger sister was named for Susan Flemming Parker, a great friend to our family, a bright light in our family's church, and an outstanding oncology nurse. She died of breast cancer not long after my sister was born — 5,000+ people packed the church for her funeral, and mourning continued for quite some time.

She touched far more people's lives than anyone could ever hope to…
posted by blasdelf at 2:14 AM on January 9, 2008

I think you should worry less about reading about death and more about talking with your friend. What do you think life means? What does does death mean? In the face of death, how would you live? What would YOU do if you had a year to live and your friend was talking to you ? How scared would you be? How scared are you now?

There's also this previous answer to a similar question.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:35 AM on January 9, 2008

Hi there. I'm currently researching the fear of death from a philosophical standpoint (assuming no afterlife). There's a pretty good lecture course online (video/audio/transcripts) here.

I think it's worth noting that it is totally reasonable to fear death, since it really is a loss of potential goods (and especially shitty if dying young or without having completed life projects). Though since we also lose the capacity that allows us to experience loss, the suffering/badness involved is now. Normally fear helps us to avoid bad things, so in this case it might seem useless. But I think it is possible to look at one's feelings of fear with a critical or even appreciative eye as an interesting part of bodily life.

I think at the core of the fear of death is the imagination of the moment of dying. It is clearly irrational to imagine being dead, and not even very sensible to imagine dying, since one is stronger than one will be then, and one's body will naturally resist that thought now in a way it won't when actually dying. It is hard to know how to prepare for this experience, since one's body could be making various demands on one's attention, and/or there could be the loss of any rational faculties that might allow one to choose an ideal graceful/passionate attitude. One could try to experience 'the now' as much as possible, perhaps even in the moments of dying. But I think it's natural to want to confront death and try to get a grip on what should be the right attitude towards it.

Instead of taking a subjective view on death, one might instead try to take a subjective point of view on the universe as a whole, in a way, to identify with all the connections and patterns that surround us. This is the only realm within which your death 'exists' and there as merely the limits of a particular part of it. That's my best consoling suggestion. To suffuse oneself with a sense of the nature and meaning of the universe (this could include love for example). You are after all, fundamentally of the world and accordingly embody/reflect all of its patterns and laws. This is not meant to suggest some illusory escape or transcendance from death but just a better grip on one's place within the grand scheme of things and a sense of the world's amazingness.

I think taking this perspective would require lots of practise and probably some help from another person at the time of death. So go look at the stars and trees and fractal patterns. Watch koyaanisqatsi or listen to Beethoven. Forget about the blackness, it doesn't exist.
posted by leibniz at 9:33 AM on January 9, 2008 [5 favorites]


Hermann Hesse was into eastern philosophy : Narcissus and Goldmund is a great book I think. He knew what he was talking about, and he was very delicate. Good luck.
posted by nicolin at 11:49 AM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

I’m very sorry about your friend. My husband lost his mother to breast cancer in the fall of 2006, and last year, a dear friend to another form of cancer. He said Who Dies, by Stephen and Ondrea Levine, is highly recommended by all his therapist friends.

It’s so sad when people turn away from those in need. You are doing a good thing.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:29 PM on January 9, 2008

My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer 14 months ago, and passed away just before the new year. Living close by, I was lucky to be with her pretty much every day. I can't add much to the terrific reading material that's already been suggested above, but I can say this: listen. Be fully present. Cry when you have to, but laugh just as much as you can. Treat her, and everyone else you care for, like gold.
posted by Kinbote at 6:14 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have faith in yourself. It sounds like your friend doesn't want to hear the insights of the Zen Masters, she wants to hear what you have to say. Trust her instincts. Say what's in your heart.

Strongly agree with this. I know how to use a library and I don't have trouble reading, so if I wanted to talk to a friend about my own mortality, it would be because there was something about them and the way that they related to the world that I found helpful. And it wouldn't necessarily seem profound either. A simplicity, an attitude, a way of looking at the world -- or simply the reassuring nature of their company while I tried to verbally think through the issues that I was struggling with.

If they started to recommend spiritual and philosophical tracts though, I'd rapidly turn off. I think I'd see that as a form of avoidance or displacement or something. Rather than being honest with me and telling me how they felt, they were trying to fob me off with the thoughts of some recognized expert in the area.

As I said, I can do that stuff for myself. I'd want a friend at this point, not a personal tutor.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:18 PM on January 9, 2008

When in doubt, there's always lol kitties. If you can't laugh at that, you're already dead anyway.
posted by DenOfSizer at 8:03 PM on January 9, 2008

You don't need Zen anything. Talk with your friend as though you are one! She values your kinship or she wouldn't have asked for your help. If she hasn't adopted a life philosophy now, the last thing she needs in her condition is demagoguery. Help her manage her fear of the possibility of dying; be the vessel through which she can recount the details of her life. Your friend is looking for peace of mind knowing her life was productive, that she has many accomplishments, that she has made a difference for her family, friends and community.

I was hours away from death due to meningitis a few years ago when I "crashed" in the emergency room. No one told me I was dying, but I knew it weeks before. My wife denied the possibility of my death, but humored me by helping to recall the details of my life. The medicos couldn't diagnose my condition (thank you, Kaiser!), but my wife stayed with me during my lucid moments and let me spill my guts about accomplishments, being a good person, things I hadn't completed, about friends who never stopped by (trust me, they will bail on you when serious illness occurs). We made a last journey home so I could say goodbye to our kids and grandkids (trust me once again, airlines hate hauling really sick people!) and I crashed during that visit.

I recovered, albeit less a few body parts and continuing challenges, but I really understand your friend's need to review her life and recall myriad details she didn't think about when she was well. I'm an example of people who don't always die when the docs say they will and your friend
should find comfort that her life may not be over yet. If it is over, you and she will be prepared.
Good luck to you both!
posted by David Sword at 1:07 AM on January 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have never before wished so much I could be in an actual room with you all. It breaks my heart to hear of friends who disappeared when the going got tough. It makes me so angry, just furious. I would beat someone up if I could just stop crying. My dear friend recently passed, he was terminally ill from kidney failure. At the end, there, his neuropathy was so advanced that he couldn't walk, he had so little energy that he couldn't really talk, but he loved to have my partner and I over just so that he could hear us chatter. We were his only friends left, even his grown daughters wouldn't spend time with him, it was too hard for them.

Oh god, I can't even type. I'm bawling.

It was the hardest thing I've ever done to go and visit with him and talk to him about his own imminent death. We could see it coming, everyone could, but we didn't want to treat him like he was already dead. We would tease him and argue with him. We would tell pretty macabre jokes, really. He loved it. He liked being a part of our everyday lives, knowing what was going on at school, hearing our family dramas, being asked for advice. We would also have some pretty intense conversations about death and dying. Not knowing what to say, I mostly just listened. I think that's what he needed anyway.

When he died, my partner and I coordinated and presided over his funeral, including giving the eulogy. You know, there were family members there, who loved only two hours away, whom I had never met in several years of being his friend. It made me glad that they came to the funeral, and angry that they didn't care to come before. I don't know how they felt, but I was (and am) comfortable in the knowledge that Bob knew I loved him, knew that he was a part of life, and knew that I valued him and his love for me.

That's all I have to say. I guess I can't give any specific advice, because every person is different, but when I had a dying friend it mattered less what I said to him and more that I talked to him at all.

And if any of you have ex-friends you want me to beat up, mefimail me.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:29 PM on January 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

This isn't exactly what you're asking for right now, but it might come in handy eventually, when your friend finally does pass away. When my mom died four years ago from t-cell lymphoma, my immediate family had the chance to say goodbye to her. She was on a respirator and couldn't talk back, but maybe a brief description of what I said will help. I didn't write anything down or practice, which I felt strongly about. Everything I said was off the cuff, because I didn't want my last conversation with her to be scripted in any way.

First, I thanked her. I told her she was so wonderful to me, the best mother a young woman could hope for. I promised her I would live up to the potential she instilled in me. I thanked her for sharing her life and her love with me, and I thanked her for fighting to stay with us. I laughed through my tears and told her I knew it was hard, but that I also knew she would finally be without pain. I told her I loved her, and that I would miss her.

The last thing I said was to promise her I would be OK. I knew she was worried more about us than about her own death. That was the sort of woman she was, it was always about us, never herself.

My mom was a badass. I still am so grateful to God that I had the chance to tell her how much I appreciated her while she was still here. :)
posted by erinfern at 3:38 PM on January 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

May I suggest "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" by Sogyal Rinpoche. Also Christine Longacre's book "Facing Death and Finding Hope"

There is an associated curriculum for care-givers (professional and otherwise). Some folks on this thread might find that useful... Its important to care for yourself as a care giver, as well as for the dying. :-)
posted by geekP1ng at 10:23 AM on February 3, 2008

The best that we can do for a dying friend is to just be there for them and hold their hand. It is not to deny that they are dying but to talk about the dying. We are too afraid to face the truth in this country about death. It is a part of life and I know it is the doorway into a new world and not a final ending only a stepping stone. I lost a brother to AIDS about 17 years ago. We knew that he was dying for 3 years before his death and we were very open about it. I was the executor of his will and we had to go through everything because he wanted to ship things to all of his friends. He even designed his own tombstone and had it made in advance. I know, this may sound morbid but it was freeing for him and for us. He had alot of faith in another world and helped alot of other people before he passed. I loved him very much and a light went out in my world when he left but I know that he is in a better place and his memory will be with me forever. It is the ability to move beyond the fear and move into faith that helps us to be there for someone who is trying not to feel alone. Utimately in death we are alone and for me it is faith that brings us through it. There are no fixes are one line answers to these things. We should all learn how to live each day as it were our last and what a world it would be then ! Good for you for being able to reach out for help and I wish you the best of strength to help your friend.
posted by butterfly7171 at 5:55 PM on February 3, 2008

Thank you erinfern, your beautiful last words to your mother were truly gracious and I'm sure were a comfort to her. my own mother was just diagnosed with extensive stage iv small-cell lung cancer. I'm not ready to think about what my last conversation will be with her quite yet (still reeling from the diagnosis), but I favorited your post to give me guidance when the time comes.

NorthCoastCafe, I am so sorry about your friend...I wish you strength and courage to put your fears aside and be there for your friend 'til the end.
posted by ellebe at 11:49 AM on February 11, 2008

I am not familiar with death to the extent that you are, but I feel compelled to answer this question.

As an atheist, I don't believe that there's any sort of afterlife or reincarnation. I suspect that, if I were to die at, for example, the ripe old age of 60 to 80, having accomplished what I want to accomplish, I would like to die doing what I do best. By that point, that would be researching. I have often thought that I would like to die at the podium presenting a lecture to students or fellow researchers. I've got one life and zero after that, so I figure I'm going to do what I want to do most in the time I have (I'm about 20, so I figure I have another half a century to squish everything in, although it might be hard to fit everything in in 50 years so I'll take care of the important stuff).

Now, if I knew when I was going to die, I would like to do everything I could in that year I had.

If I was going to talk to someone continuously about these things, I would probably talk to them in very honest ways - about Big Questions - do you think life has a purpose? What do you regret not having done, what are you thankful for having done? What would you like to happen to your body after you die? What would you like to tell people the most? Be honest with her and be yourself. Perhaps, in addition to talking to her, give her an impetus to do some things she'd like to do - if she's well enough to skydive, go skydiving with her.
posted by kldickson at 1:05 PM on February 21, 2008

In addition, dying doing what you love to do is a good thing. Me, I want to die at the bench doing neuroscience research. (I'm a neuroscience student. )
posted by kldickson at 1:08 PM on February 21, 2008

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