The end

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…

3 Comments

Filed under Death and dying

3 responses to “The end

  1. Dear Dawn,
    So sorry for the pain in your family. The Buddha didn’t (as far as I know) address specifically the loss of a child, and suicide very rarely. For you, the most important thing to do is – TODAY – write a loving and supportive note to your cousin. Don’t mention your own child or projected feelings. Let your cousin know that you share her grief and would welcome the opportunity to provide whatever support she might need. Put yourself in her shoes. What words would you welcome?
    With metta,
    Lynn

  2. Dawn

    My cousin just suffered the loss of her son to suicide. I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to her, yet.. I spoke to my Aunt, who is elderly and handles the concept of death very well, but she is suffering as well. She assured me that time would do much of the healing. I am not close to my cousin physically or emotionally so I can’t hold her hand or give her a warm embrace. I have a child, and can imagine the level of pain. Does Buddha address this issue? Do you have any advice for me? I love your blog and look forward to reading your entries daily.

  3. Mindy

    I just heard that a former co-worker has cancer. This is the perfect moment to read this and realize how I can best react and help this person.

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