Is there anything I(we) can do for a terminally-ill co-worker?
January 21, 2008 8:20 AM   Subscribe

A co-worker has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Treatments have stopped and Hospice is now involved. He is 61 years old and has been working at the company for 40 years. We are an engineering firm and most of the employees are kind of... well... not the type to try (self-start) and do something for our co-worker of his family. I was wondering if there was anything I could do and/or have the office do to help, comfort, etc Obviously sending 'get well' cards is out of the question. ... I just don't know what it is appropriate. Any ideas? Thanks.
posted by KogeLiz to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A friend recently passed away, similar circumstances. I spent most of my free available time visiting with his family and himself. We offered to help out with things like grocery shopping, ordering food, etc - things that are hard when you are a caregiver (if he has existing family). If he's alone, I would definitely try to spend as much time with him as possible. There is no easy way to deal with the fact that you are dying and it is a raw deal; it is even harder to wait to die. It may seem contrite, but I gave my friend books I would want to read before I died - mostly philosophy - on the nature of life and death. I'm not sure how far along he got in Emerson's collected works, but I hope he read at least a few pages.

Cancer hits hard. I didn't quite realize how hard until my SO was diagnosed (and is now in remission), a close friend was diagnosed (and is continuing treatments), and another friend died. It is the worst of the worst.
posted by arimathea at 8:54 AM on January 21, 2008

Best answer: A bunch of testimonials, for him and his family to read, memorializing what he's done for the company and for his co-workers, both professionally and personally. Let him go out knowing he made some sort of difference.

(Many years ago, on alt.angst, a usenet newsgroup dedicated to people bemoaning the existential emptiness of their lives, the most affecting post, for me, was one by an engineer who told of waking up at four in the morning, ashamed he'd never developed a truly unique algorithm, never patented anything, and so he felt he'd made no real accomplishments despite having had a good job and fulfilling work. Let your co-worker know his likfe's work mattered, even if in some small and localized way.)
posted by orthogonality at 8:55 AM on January 21, 2008 [6 favorites]

If hospice is involved, it won't be long before he passes. Be practical. If sitting in solidarity is not these guys' style, go over to the house and rake the yard, take the garbage out, see if there's other chores that have gone undone over recent weeks, maybe arrange for a meal or two. Call first and insist - the family may resist, but not for long.
posted by DandyRandy at 8:55 AM on January 21, 2008

It's a very tough situation, and I can't think of anything substantive off the top of my head that would help him, but I bet his family would. I would suggest talking to them and asking if you could provide help or comfort in any way. They would probably be able to point you in the right direction. Even if there isn't anything you can do, they'll appreciate the offer.

On preview: DandyRandy and animalthea pretty much put down what I was kind of looking for.
posted by Weebot at 9:00 AM on January 21, 2008

Several things help...

1. Take in food. Cancer patients usually can't stand to smell food being prepared and then eat the same food.

2. Set up a schedule to go sit with him so his caregiver can get a break. It will be a wonderful experience for those who spend the time with him. Set up 4 hour blocks 1-2 times a week. While you're there share funny memories of your working together. Or ask him about is life, why he got into that line of work, most interesting project, etc. Let the family know that it would be a privilege for you to come in and visit with him (they'll not want to burden you). And encourage the caregiver to do something for herself during those four hours (lunch with a friend, massage, golf)-not just have tos, like banking, groceries, etc.

3. Offer to do the grocery shopping.

4. Offer to stay with him so the caregiver can get to a spiritual service-church, if she'd like.

5. If you visit, talk about things at work, news events, all the things you would have talked about normally. Also, ask how he's doing with what is happening to him. If you friends as well as co-workers, he could probably use someone to talk to.

6. Does he have a birthday or anniversary coming up? Make a special meal for him and his caregiver celebrating it.

7. Above all, remember it only takes a few hours to die. Until then he is living. So don't think of him as a dying man, rather as a man who now knows the preciousness of time for his life-something the rest of us don't have the benefit of.
posted by Jandasmo at 9:04 AM on January 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

I would second DandyRandy's suggestion of making yourself available to the family. When you know someone is going to die within a short period of time, it can be very difficult to think of the mundane things, even the essentials like meals. Further compounding the problem is the guilt that often comes on when you leave the bedside to, say, take out the trash, always thinking "what if he dies while I'm taking out the trash?"

This is sort of an odd suggestion, and only applies if your coworker really loved classical music, but if he is still conscious and not in too much pain, perhaps you could suggest arranging for a violinist (or other small, portable instrument) to play by his bedside for a few hours. Dying need not be silence and dimly lit rooms. Some people, though not all, would prefer to enjoy life as much as possible right up to the end, and maybe your coworker is one of them. Certainly consult with the family, though.
posted by jedicus at 9:04 AM on January 21, 2008

One of our longtime co-workers died in hospice last summer from cancer. We are more of the "family" type workplaces, so many people were participating in our efforts to support him and say goodbye.

One thing that complicated things is that our friend was in hospice in another state. Some people who could (I couldn't) flew out to see him. Sometimes we would call him on the phone, but that was always dicey -- it was hard for him to hear or speak and sometimes he was too sick to even try.

We sent him lots of little things in the mail -- hello cards, funny pictures, etc. (When I had a princess pride party (for Pride last year -- I live in San Francisco), I sent him a little gift bag with a tiara and some other princess crap.) That way he knew we were thinking of him but he didn't have to deal with us at any particular time. We put together a book with pictures of all of us with him at different times and writing from us that we missed him and teasing him about silly things. The hospice workers reported that he loved it and looked through it many times.

Seconding that time is limited. In the few times that I've had people close to me in hospice, it seems like it's going on and on (and it is), and then it's over.

Our friend was a decades-long HIV survivor, so he had thought a lot about death and dying over the years. I don't know if that changed our process.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:17 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is the guy still working? Does he and his family need money?

You could hold a retirement/tribute/not dead yet party and/or fund raiser sort of thing. Structure it like a Dean Martin roast.
posted by gjc at 9:28 AM on January 21, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the wonderful ideas.

To be honest, his wife is pretty controlling and I am unsure about the whole 'going to visit him' idea. His best friend (coworker) has been visiting almost daily. His director has visited him but felt akward because his wife kept arguing.

I just don't know if certain things are appropriate or how private he wants things to remain.

I was thinking of maybe some pictures.

The tribute idea sounds great. But would that depress him? "I'm dying and everyone is sending their last words?"

I'm not sure. ?

Thanks again.
posted by KogeLiz at 9:52 AM on January 21, 2008

If he has family coming from out of town, offer yourselves as a chauffeurs. If he has pets, offer to take care of them.
I'm sorry you're losing a friend. Be sure to keep an eye on your co-workers and support each other.
posted by Sara Anne at 9:56 AM on January 21, 2008

Best answer: What about a tribute video? It doesn't have to be something grand and epic. You could just charge someone with the task of going around the office and asking people for their favorite memory of this gentleman. Cheerful ones are good. It'd probably be nice for his family, too, to hear that he was such a very valued part of a workplace for so long.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:37 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Call him and ask if there's anything you can do. Call his family and ask if there's anything you can do. If either of them say no, your next question should be, "Would it be ok for me to ask again tomorrow?" Follow through tomorrow.

People can take a while to realize that they need help. People can take a while to realize what kind of help they need. People can take a while to understand that others really want to help, and are not just going through the motions. When people get over all of those things, the friend who has gently offered their help again and again is the most valuable.
posted by vytae at 10:37 AM on January 21, 2008

There are some good suggestions in this thread.
posted by TedW at 10:38 AM on January 21, 2008

Seconding the idea of co-workers writing some sort of tribute, or even just a particular memory of something Patient (sorry, don't know his name) once did at the office, whether it be funny, goofy or a great idea that solved a tricky problem. He's in hospice, he knows his time is limited, and I think that rather than seeing such notes as "final words," it will let him know that people remember him and that he did have some sort of impact on them at one time or another.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:05 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

In my opinion, the worst part of serious illness is the isolation. In your normal, healthy life, you have the illusion that there are lots of people in your life, because you're always interacting with your neighbors, co-workers, classmates, etc. Once you fall ill, most people don't come around, either because they don't actually care that much or do care but don't know what to do. I don't know exactly what his wife is doing to keep people away, and I'm sure she's having a meltdown of her own which deserves understanding and tact, but please find a way to let this man know you're with him.
posted by Enroute at 11:14 AM on January 21, 2008

The tribute idea sounds great. But would that depress him? "I'm dying and everyone is sending their last words?"

The prognosis for pancreatic cancer is so tragically poor. He knows he's dying. But people tend to feel awkward and withdraw when someone is that sick.

Get well soon cards are obviously out, but even very brief "you're in my thoughts" notes would be great. Or anything -- postcards, comic strips, just stuff that lets him know that you're thinking of him and gives him another reason to look forward to the mail delivery. Be goofy.

Something for his room from 'the guys' would be great as well. Why not think of something funny that would be sort of an alternative to flowers -- a trophy, or a circuit-breaker mounted with an engraved plaque, whatever. (Flowers are great too -- send on behalf of the whole office.)
posted by desuetude at 11:50 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

What a.. biartch. Maybe the nicest thing you could do for him is run a little interferance for him. Possibly, no scratch that, - obviously - she's not coping well at all.

Something I noticed with my Mother concerning her Father was that she would vent about whatever it was but it was as if she was oblivious to the fact that the situation was going to change, and it was apparent it would be sooner rather than later.

Tell him how much you respect him, just ask him?
And perhaps soothing her pain would be the kindest thing you could do for the man, in more ways than one?
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 12:52 PM on January 21, 2008

The professional tribute sounds like a great idea. I have several engineers as clients, and as you know they tend to be an introverted crowd that takes great pride in getting the job done correctly. I think recollections about past projects, successes, etc, would be the perfect thing to do. Let the best friend coordinate how to best get it to him. No need to make a big production out of it.
posted by footnote at 1:36 PM on January 21, 2008

When my late first wife's mother was dying, she was bedridden for the last few days. Wife went to visit her. When she did, I asked her to give her mom a message for me... "Tell her how much I love YOU."

I knew that mom's worries were for the things she loved, about to be left behind. I'd want to hear that they'd be protected, loved, looked after. Maybe co-worker would to? Can you engineer something along those lines?

Later, when wife got sick and was a short-timer, I told her "This is your show. I am your advocate and vehicle now that you're impaired. From now on, it's what you want, when you want it, 24/7, no questions asked, until you don't need me anymore. I don't have any time that's not yours, any money that's not yours, and I'll stop at nothing to see that you have what you need or desire. You may feel and be very alone in this, but I will be here at your side without fail."

I'd have stomped bunnies for her. And I'm not kidding.

Now this may be a tad extreme for a co-worker, but the time to reach out is NOW. If he is of any value to you, he'll appreciate knowing it. Don't give the family two problems.... dealing with the death and figuring out your assignment... figure it out on your own and do it.

Empathize. What would you want, lying there in pain and fear? Love is a great gift, but it takes a bit of work. If you make the effort, your spirit will thank you after he is gone. You'll have done a great kindness. It is a lonely path he treads.

Good luck to you and your friend.
posted by FauxScot at 2:58 PM on January 21, 2008 [9 favorites]

FauxScot, I just wanted to say outloud that what you did for your late wife was a beautiful thing and I'm sitting here crying after reading it. To be able to go out knowing you're loved like that is a tremendous thing.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:13 AM on January 26, 2008

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