A friend died and, predictably, it tore the lid off my own can of personal grief. I’ve been seized with the desire to find recordings of my late husband, because I feel like I’m forgetting what he sounded like. And I want to show said recordings to the chap I subsequently married for reasons that elude me. I’m not going to go ahead with that idea until I figure out the reasoning because I can think of at least two ways that such an incident would not end well.
Thank you for the laughter and the hugs and for knowing when I needed them.
Thank you for not throwing me out of the house when I ate pickled onion Monster Munch, even though you hated the stuff.
I’m sorry I often put myself first without thinking about what you might want.
I miss your stories and watching you tell them. You could always make people laugh.
I’m glad you turned me into a dog lover.
I wish you could meet the man I married almost 19 years to the day I married you. I think you’d like him a lot.
A little context: Both of my parents and my first husband died of cancer. I was closely involved with their care and their end of life. Now, as some time has passed, friends in my age group are encountering similar situations and are sometimes at a loss for what to do or how to act. I write this with grateful acknowledgement of the nigh-boundless help I received from many people as I found my way through.
My Friend Is Dying, What Do I Do?
The short version:
- Be there for your friend.
- Be there for the caregivers.
- Be there for yourself.
The long version:
Be there for your friend.
When a person is facing end of life, the last thing they want is to be abandoned. You think this would be a no-brainer, but the news has probably scared you and fear drives bad decisions. And if this is the first time you’ve faced losing a buddy, well, we often mis-step in new situations. Don’t run. Don’t go silent.
If you don’t know what to say, then literally say that. Visit, call, email, write a goddamn Hallmark card and say “I don’t what to say.”. It breaks the silence and keeps the bond between you two.
If your friend wants visitors, then visit them. Work with their family and caregivers, and learn what their schedule is like. Some terminal folks spend time in hospice with a surprisingly defined schedule – meds might make them more or less lucid at certain times, or their night-owl habits continue to drive them. Learn what that schedule is – if there is one – and time your visits accordingly.
If you visit, let your friend call the shots. 15 minutes might be a “long” visit for them. Or they might want you to sit through a movie on TV and not say a word. If they want to talk about the heavy stuff, talk about the heavy stuff. If they want to bitch about the Raiders, then join in wholeheartedly. Ask them what they want and then keep any promises made. Little things mean a lot right now. EVERYTHING means a lot. If your friend wants you to bring banana Slurpees on your next visit, you better stock up on bendy straws. If they want you to sing at their wake, get practicing.
I have a personal policy of saying whatever I think my friend wants to hear. I’m a life-long atheist, but when my mom started talking about meeting her long-dead father again, do you think I contradicted her? Of course not. You might consider that hypocritical, but you know whose comfort matters me to me right now? Hint: not mine.
Be there for the caregivers.
No matter how rough you might feel right now, the family and nurses and helpers have it worse. If you have the time and the resources, offer them what support you can. Run errands, bring take-out food, drag them out of the sickroom and let them think about something else for five damn minutes. Help the caregivers follow the “Comfort In, Dump Out” model.
Be there for yourself.
It might seem like another no-brainer, but it has to be said. Eat, sleep and make sure you have some downtime of your own. Don’t over-commit yourself and don’t let a delicate conscience override your boundaries and compel you to take on more than you can handle. You have obligations that remain important, no matter what. Be up-front with your family, friends and boss about what you’re going through, and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised and how much they can help you juggle things..
Ultimately, this all boils down to: BE PRESENT. If your friend is still cognizant and you have the chance to have the ‘What do you want – now and later?’ conversation, grab that chance with both hands. Such information is priceless.
Being present at the end of a friend’s life is both a privilege and a burden. It’s going to put you through a wringer as you start to grieve someone even before they die, and you’re going to have some bleak thoughts about your own mortality, too. But tough it out. Your friend might not be able to say it out loud, but they need you beside them as they face the scariest part of their life.
And, when it’s all over, remember and learn. Because I hate to break it to you, but this won’t be the last time you have to say goodbye.
Eating custard right out of the can is perhaps an odd way to remember one’s father, but rituals often create themselves with little regard for reason or sense.
While Popster was dealing with the illness that I blame for his death* he was stuck in hospital for months and didn’t have much of an appetite for anything. One of the few things he could eat was canned custard, imported from the Olde Country. Sometimes with a banana sliced into it because, well, he liked bananas. He liked to eat the custard cold (or at room temperature) which horrified me as a hot custard aficionado – poured over something hot and stodgy, for preference. (You can take the girl out of England…)
Because Pop was so ill, he could never finish an entire can and because he was immuno-suppressed, the leftovers couldn’t be saved. Wasting good food is a minor sin in my family and eating is a comfort… so I learned to like cold custard. I’d fix up a bowl with whatever Pop wanted and then finish the rest, eating it directly out of the can with a UCSF cafeteria spoon because why create more dirty dishes?
A lot of the good family memories involve food. Mom definitely belonged to the Feed-‘Em-Up school of familial affection and over 30 years or so, her skills graduated from egg-and-chips to complicated things involving ducks and balsamic reductions and whatnot. Dinner parties were a favorite thing to do with friends and chosen family. Pop – to everyone’s amazement – became an astonishingly good cook after Mom died. He acknowledged that she had primed him for it by feeding him such good food for so long. But there were always a few cans of custard (and rice pudding!) lurking in then pantry, too.
I literally inherited several cans of custard after Pop died. His widow didn’t want it around, and wasting good food is a minor sin… Four cans of Devon brand custard and two cans of gooseberries in light syrup, which Popster had planned to turn into a gooseberry fool during his too-short stay at home in between hospitalizations. And so they’ve sat in the pantry for eight months or so, even following me when I moved 600 miles because you don’t waste good food, especially not food that’s already come 6,000 miles as it is.
An old friend died on Thursday. It was unexpected and therefore that much more of a shock. We hadn’t talked directly in a long time, but we would wave to each other on Facebook and had friends in common. For some of those mutual friends, this is probably the first time they’ve had to deal with the train of thought that begins with “But he was my age…” and “But he seemed okay…”.
From there, it’s no time at all before thoughts of mortality dominate the stream of consciousness, albeit mixed up with anger at losses past and present. And so I end up reaching for something to distract me and because the more traditional methods of displacement and checking out are forbidden, I open up a can of custard.
I don’t know what to do with the gooseberries, but eating custard comes easily enough. And as I eat it, my thoughts drift from memories of Pop to death in general and regrets and the fact that I’m entering that time of life when I’m going to be saying more goodbyes than hellos. It’s a pretty grim prospect.
And then the metaphorical can of worms opens up, too. I think about all the goodbyes I’ve said and how they have me really goddamn wishing that I believed in an afterlife, so I could console myself with an envisioned reunion on The Other Side. And so I could maybe hope for a chance to say a few unsaid words, years too late. More than a few, actually. I’ve got practically an entire essay for my first husband – beginning and ending with “I’m sorry”. I’m sure everyone’s got at least one of those written in their head, somewhere.
And then I sneer at my romanticism and wonder where the entire can of custard went.