Linda, a good friend, suggested that the subject of how we behave around death and dying might be a fruitful area for investigation. Many of us have had parents, friends or other people near us recieve diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses, and often awkwardness, or even panic, ensues. We’re unsure what to say or do, and some of us just shy away because we don’t want to make a mistake. But then the ill or dying person can feel abandoned. Linda’s most pressing question was, “What do you say when you hear a friend has advanced cancer?”
When we don’t know what to say, the best approach is often to ask questions. So, specifically in answer to Linda’s query, I might phone up and let the friend know that I’d heard she had a challenging diagnosis and first ask if that was correct. Depending on the relationship, one could then ask how things stand today. The point is to get the person who’s dealing with a lot to lead the way into a conversation.
This is pretty much how it works for me when visiting dying people in the context of my hospice volunteer work. Each visit, even with the same person one week later, is a new world. I try to stay positive, but also to give lots of space and look for clues about what’s needed today. Sometimes it’s silence, sometimes reserved listening, and sometimes the person just wants to converse on neutral topics to experience some “normal” time.
Sick people often carry two special burdens: gradually giving up their previous identity as a healthy, self-suficient human being, and reassuring people who project their fears onto the sick person. Any conversation that doesn’t increase those burdens is a good conversation.
One of the Buddha’s precepts recommends the avoidance of harsh speech. Gentle words will always be appropriate when speaking with someone who’s coping with a new situation.
Of course, the reason we find interacting with ill or dying people challenging is that our fears about our own death are brought to the surface. The more directly we have dealt with the reality of our own eventual demise, the less charged the whole situation becomes. More on that topic next time…