Episode 15: Hey, What Do I Say To Someone Who Is Dying?
One of the most difficult things in life can be talking to a friend or loved on who is terminally ill. In this episode, Mitch discusses the awkwardness and how to avoid it! He ends the episode with a wonderful story of bro-love.
"Most of us really have the need to just say something that will encourage that person. And often we want to believe that those things that were saying are true because the reality of this journey is just.. well, it's just hard. "
Hello and welcome to living with Hospice. My name is Mitch Ware, and I'll be your host today. Come on in. Grab a cup of freshly brewed coffee and let's chat. You know, one of the most difficult things in life is knowing what to say or how to talk to someone who, you know, has been told they have a terminal disease. It's hard. Many people don't even try. They just withdraw. They cut off communication with the person because, well, they just don't know what to say. They don't know how they're going to handle it. They do know they're gonna feel uncomfortable. And that's what we're going to chat about today. Before we get too far into this, let me remind you that I'm not a doctor, a therapist, a nurse or any other professional medical person. What I m, though, is a long term volunteer with hospice, and I was a caregiver for my terminally ill son and a part time caregiver for other family members, including my mom. In the past 15 years, I've learned a lot and I want to share with you my unbiased opinions in knowledge that I've gathered through all these experiences. Everyone in hospice care has been told that their life on this earth may very well end in the next six months or so. So they have made the decision to inter comfort care. Now. You come around the corner in the grocery store and you encounter them. You lock eyes. What do you say? Many experts will tell you that you must say something. But whatever you do, don't say Oh, yeah, I heard. Don't worry. You can beat this or my friend at work, beat their condition and is now doing great. Sometimes, most times, you don't have to say anything at all. When you come around that corner in your lock eyes with that person in that moment, just be present. Smile, move into their space a little bit. Maybe give them a hug. When you smile like that, your heart will speak to theirs trust me. It will. To be honest, most of us feel the need to say something comforting something I don't know, encouraging here or supportive something brilliant. I used to always feel like I needed to say something funny. And often it was less than funny. It certainly wasn't brilliant. It was an awkward attempt to really, I guess, probably make myself feel better. And, well, it was pretty much train wreck. Can you relate to that? Put yourself in the patient's shoes. You appreciate the gesture of this person but may not appreciate actually what they said. Like, you know, you got this or you're tough. I know you can beat this or Hey, miracles happen every day. Most of us really have the need to just say something that will encourage that person. And often we want to believe that those things that were saying are true because the reality of this journey is just well, it's just hard. I'm here to tell you today. It doesn't have to be. Most people who are in their 11th hour of their life either want to talk about their situation or they do not. So what is your relationship with this person? If you're an acquaintance, your approach is probably with kindness and comfort, and they mean I want to talk to you about it because it's a personal thing. If the person is a good friend, then you may want to say something like GM. So sorry to hear this news. How can I help? Do you want to talk about? And if the person is a family member or a really, really good friend, then you can be even more intimate in your choice of words and say, You know, I'm really sorry to hear this news, but I would just want you to know I love you. I'm here for you. I will be here with you. You're not alone and then let them decide if they want to talk about it. They'll probably cry. By the way, it's okay for you to cry, too. That's one way how we express that we care for people or that we love people. It's that unspoken communication that really speaks better than words. Sometimes when you make that first encounter depending on again how close you are, it's very good to just be present with that person. At first, that means I contact focusing your attention on them, not looking around, certainly not on your phone. Don't be distracted. That person will pick up on it if you do, and they'll resent it, and you're going to feel awkward about it later. When you think back on it. I know for many people, especially the first few times, it's difficult to be around someone who is terminally ill. I guess there are several reasons for that, but I'll bet for most people, the most common reason is it reminds them of their own mortality. Now people with a strong faith are usually less bothered by this than those who don't have any faith at all. Now I'm not passing judgment on anyone that used to be me. I had great plans for my life. I had a lot of dreams that I wanted to fulfill in the last thing they wanted to even be reminded about was death. And then one day I realized I let my insecurity get in the way of visiting with a few people who were on their end of life journey. And these were people that were friends of mine. They meant something to me. That is regret I can't fix. That's not something I can go back and change now. However, as I got older and more mature, I grew in my faith and I realized I was not only destined to die someday, just like everybody else, but that being around someone who is terminally ill, is not about me. It's about honoring them. I'll tell you, those visits are always a blessing. So ask yourself if you're freaked out about being around someone who is terminally ill, what is really holding you back from being there for them? Take a break from your day today, do some introspection and figure out why are you afraid? What is it that just gets in the way and you just can't do it? Then take action to correct that. You'll be surprised what you can overcome when you take charge of your feelings by taking action. When you control your thoughts, you can change your reality. Let me say that again. When you control your thoughts, you can change your reality. Okay, so what do I say to someone who is terminally ill? It is okay to say, I'm sorry to hear this news, and if you're close to that person, it's certainly okay to say, Do you want to talk about it? As good as it feels for you to talk about it, it's even better for them. Trust me, especially in the beginning. Most people not all but most people. When the first find out, want to talk about everything that's going on with them? Some people want to share a great length and, of course, well, someone to share very little because they're just very private. It's their story to tell. Don't poke and prod for information. Let them share it as they're comfortable in doing so. Or if they're not able, maybe they're not responsive. And so the primary caregiver is that conduit for information for you. In my experience, the majority of people want and need to share what is happening to them with their friends and family. The exception to that is either people wanting to spare someone else the sadness of the news or want to deal with it on their own. They're just a very private person, and they don't want help or they don't want support from the outside. Fortunately, I haven't run into very many of those, maybe one or two. Oh, before I forget why it's still fresh in my mind when you first encounter this person. That whole big elephant in the room needs to be addressed. That is, it's okay to do a little small talk. How are you? I'm good Yadi Yadi. And then I'm so sorry to hear this news. How can I be of help? That needs to be right upfront because the more small talk you do, the more awkward it becomes. Also, this is when grieving and healing for you starts. So let me say this again in different words. Small talks. Great. But you need to tell that person I'm really sorry to hear this news and then ask them, Do you want to talk about it and then follow their lead and just be present? Listen, give them your focus, your attention and you don't have to say anything If you don't want to let your eyes let the tears let a hug say those most important things for you and that's I care. I'm here. You're not alone. I have had people ask me. Well, I don't know that person's religious perspective. Is it okay for me to say I'm going to pray for you? The answer's sure, Yes, why not? As a person of faith, if I sense it's okay to bring that to bring religion up or or faith or prayer, I usually ask, How can I pray for you? I have yet to have anyone in 15 years. Tell me. Oh, no, Node, Don't bother or no, I don't believe or thank you, but no, thank you. Also, when you say, How can I pray for you then that allows them to share with you what they feel they need. And you may be surprised And what they tell you, you may be thinking where they're going to say, Well, gosh, I pray for a miracle healing or or whatever More often they'll say, pray for strength or pray for peace. For me and almost always almost every single time their prayer request is, Please pray for my family. They're going through a rough time right now. You know, when you asked that question, how can I pray for you? That really makes them feel better as you've provided comfort to them by asking them what their need is, as opposed to assuming that you know what their need is. Sometimes people in the 11th hour want to clear the books. That is, they want to ask for your forgiveness or they want to clarify something from 30 years ago that maybe happened on the playground. Or they may confess that they're angry at you for something that you did. They maybe you didn't even know you did or you did and forgot about. It's good to forgive, and it's good to be forgiven. And that only happens when you use those words. By the way, forgive me and thank you. I forgive you. Sometimes those words air conveyed in a gesture. Maybe it's a smile. Maybe it's tears. Maybe it's just a touch, but that communication is there, and it helps close the books. Someone asked me. Okay, so what I say to someone who's dying, why didn't like or I like them, but they never liked me. Well, this kind of fits in with what we're talking about right now. This allows you two close the books on a positive note, and it eliminates regret. It's like Tim McGraw said in that very popular country song. A few years back, I gave forgiveness that I've been denying giving forgiveness. Clearing the books takes a huge load off of your shoulders and is a healthy way to proceed with your own life. And it allows that person two transition with more peace of mind. I just have to address this next point. Guys, don't be afraid to tell your buddy that you loved being their friend. Don't be afraid of saying, Brother, I love you. We've been socialized, You and I, especially us baby boomers. We've been socialized not to say these things freely, but you know that's wrong. In my opinion, there's comfort in letting your buddies No, that the friendship that you have on that you've had is special, and it's valued by you. When my son passed away a few years ago, I saw a dozen young men standing in a circle there in the in the funeral home in the visitation, one of the visitation rooms. And they were talking about the good old days, the good old times that they'd all shared together with my son Matt. And as they got ready to leave, I noticed they turned to one another. They hugged each other and many said, I love you, man, and he meant it again. Being a baby boomer. I was really impressed with that, and I now tell my best buddies that I love them, especially when they're going through something rough. Sometimes it's saying I love you isn't a spoken thing it could be in action like a smile in a nod. Or maybe just put your arm around somebody Shoulder are could be something as simple as a fist bump fist Bump says I care. Fist Bump says We're good and fist bump can say I love you, man. If it isn't okay to tell someone that you care about that you love them well, especially in their 11th hour. Then when is it okay to do so? It's okay to tell them you love them and let them know that they are loved and cared for by you. As I mentioned, being present is probably the most important thing you can quote unquote say it's the most important thing you can do and you say it with your body. Language touches a powerful way to non verbally communicate from cradle to the grave. Reaching out touching a person's arm or holding someone's hand is a huge way to say I'm here for you. I care for you and it also can say I love you and you matter to me. I realize that some people are just not touchy feeling. In fact, there are a lot of people in this world It well, they're just not touchy feely I have. Yet in all of my experience, though, encountered any patient or any primary caregiver that didn't appreciate some contact, like touching an arm or shaking a hand. And of course, there are people that would not naturally reach out to touch someone that they're visiting. And it's it's hard to know what to say. Combined with that and, well, it just makes for a really awkward situation. If that is, you let me share with you that you will feel really better. If you just break through that fear, reach out and touch that person's elbow, look them in the eye and say you matter to me or I really care. Or if it's a loved one, I love you. And then just hold that smile and let your heart talk to theirs. And again, I guarantee you it will. You know it's also okay to reminisce. Hey, you remember back when we did this or that? Remember when? Remember when this happened? Remember when we went to the Holiday Inn to get ice so that we could go to the drive in theater and keep our pop soda cold. When we reminisce, we suddenly have things to talk about. We can actually enter into a dialogue. All of that awkwardness is gone. Make sure when you're doing this. Be a good listener, too. It's not all about you doing the storytelling, especially if that person is capable of of talking and being responsive. Let your loved one tell their perspective or their side of the story. It's okay to smile and laugh. Also, some of the best medicine is laughter. And if you can reminisce and talk about some great things that you encountered together, it's great to do that and tow laugh and to smile. So let's summarize a little here. Sometimes it's really hard to know what to say to someone who is terminally ill. The best thing is to just be present, be there. Sometimes we don't have to say anything. Just being there is enough, and it's good to say I'm so sorry to hear this news. I'm here for you and follow their lead. They may want to talk about it, in which case let them and they may not want to talk about it, in which case move on, maybe into some reminiscing. It's okay to ask. By the way, how can I help and again let them direct the conversation? There are a few things not good to say to someone who's in hospice care. Like Don't say anything that's gonna appear to give false hope like I know you're gonna beat this or miracles happen every single day. Just be honest with them in yourself. If they want to talk about it, great, then you be a good listener. If they say, Jeez, I'm afraid it's okay to say, You know what? I'm afraid to. You don't have to put on this false bravado and like, Well, I just know everything's gonna be all right. It's okay to be vulnerable and show that vulnerability. It's okay to cry and let your body language speak for you. As we wrap up, let me tell you a little story that impacted my life forever. Back 100 years ago, when I was in college, I worked a couple of jobs to help pay for my expenses. One of them was for the Big Brown Parcel Service. They had a parcel sorting hub there in the little town where I went to school and they had an assortment of really great pain, part time jobs, just perfect for college students. While there, I met a lot of really terrific people, and in fact I'm still in touch with some of them. To this day, thanks to Facebook, as I was able to climb the seniority ladder, I was able to bid on and receive the job of car slash truck washer. That was an excellent job. We got to work outside washing and fueling all the vehicles. And it was in this job I met TJ. TJ had just returned from the Army and a tour in Vietnam. We really got along great. We had a lot in common. The love for the outdoors hunting, fishing in music. TJ wasn't a musician, by the way, but he had a great ear for music and he really enjoyed listening to music. And we would sit together sometimes and disassemble the music and talk about what makes this song great. What makes that song great. As time went on, we became really great friends, and he taught me how to properly fish and hunt, how to preserve the outdoors, how to work on cars and pretty much how to enjoy life. His father was pretty cool guy, too. He was a World War two vet who worked for Ma Bell. For those of you who don't know what that is, you can go Google it and you'll see that it's the phone company. And he climbed poles, running wires and troubleshooting out just stuff like that. And they both love to invent things or improve things building things. And they both really loved the great outdoors. We would have, Ah, a deer camp or a trout camp the opening weekend of those seasons, and there would be five or six of US regular attendees. Your first we used tents, and then T J. And his dad converted his Dodge cargo van into a camper. And I think it was probably one of the first campers conversions ever, and it really worked great. We hunted on their land up north, and, ah, sadly, we never even saw a deer. I saw one, dear. One time and I missed. I'll never be able to live that one down. Uh, maybe you're familiar with the term buck fever. Anyway, I digress. As life does. We all ended up moving in different directions, going ah to faraway places. We would still meet a few more times each year at camp, either. Dear Camper Trout camp in the spring. But our kids are getting older and they had activities that we Dad's needed to attend and help with So fast forward a decade in the U. S. Mail came an invite for a wedding, and it was TJ's daughter's wedding. I remember thinking, No way is a little pumpkin that old Well, yeah, time doesn't wait for anybody. So we went up a few days early. My wife and I, we had a great visit, were able to catch up with T. J and his family, and it was really cool time. The day of the wedding, TJ came up to me and said, You know, we need to get some more ice hop in the car, Let's go And I thought, Yes, like old times hop in the car and go get some ice beer runs, that sort of thing. It was on the ride to get more ice that T. J told me something that made my blood run cold. He told me that he'd been covered several times in Agent Orange while in Nam and that he now had tumors all over his back and his legs. And I just sat there. I knew it was cancer. I knew what he's talking about. He didn't have to tell me. He then said, You know, several my Army buddies have similar situation, and a couple of Amauri passed away. When I heard those words, my heart just fell into my stomach. My best friend is telling me he's terminally ill. We rode for it seemed like miles and miles before I could muster up. Oh my God, T J. I'm so sorry. Now, if I could stop there, I would have probably been okay. But typical to me. Especially young me. I started motor mouth thing. Well, you know T J. There are new treatments every day, and I hear that the guys that recovered an Agent Orange have really good results with some of these new treatments, which is totally made up on my part. Just a desperate attempt to comfort him, improbably, just really, to make myself feel better, you let me go on and on and on. And then he looked over and said, Mitch, it's OK, you gotta play the hand you're dealt. I sat there in disbelief. He went on to say It'll be okay. I just wanted you to know I said, man, thank you for telling me. You know, I'll be praying for you. And I did. I did pray for him faithfully. Now fast forward again. A few years I get a call from TJ's wife that TJ was approaching his final days and that I should pride come visit if I want to still see him. So my wife and I hopped in the car and we went up north for the visit and we got there and we all kind of sat around and we reminisced We really had a good visit. And then I remember how am I going to say goodbye to this guy? When it came time to leave a I chickened out instead of saying Thank you, brother, for everything that you've taught me all the times that you've tolerated me. And I love you. You're my brother. I said, OK, TJ seeing a couple weeks. TJ knew me inside now and he showed me grace on that day, as he has many days before that He sort of just chuckled and said, Yeah, okay, See, in a couple weeks, I'll tell you, that was one very long ride back to Grand Rapids. Don't make my mistakes. If you get the chance to close the books of someone you love, do so if not for your sake, then for theirs. If you like our podcast, please leave comments and thumbs up on the platforms that you're listening to this on. Please tell your friends that are approaching or are in, or maybe have been in an end of life experience. Tell them about our podcast. You can find us most everywhere. You can get podcast these days, and you can email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time I'm Mitch Ware for living with hospice. Have a blessed day