What to Say When Someone Is Dying at Christmas–or Anytime

A few days ago I was asked what to say to a friend whose boyfriend is dying.

My first thought was, “No!” My second was, “Not at Christmas. Not during the holidays,” as if any time is a “better” time to face the death of a loved one.

I responded as well as I could (not knowing her friends) from my experiences and from what others have shared with me about theirs. I cried as I typed, aching for families I know also facing the holidays with their own heart-breaking questions this year: parents, children, cousins, spouses, friends.

Here’s an adaptation of what I answered:

I’m so, so sorry for what you’re going through right now. Yes, it is about your dying friend and about your other friend, the already bereaved partner about to be left behind, but — oh, you’re going through the pain of grief, too!

For you to best help your friend, the first thing to understand is you can’t “fix” anything — for either of them. They’re both experiencing unbearable, inexplicable pain. This may sound awful, but the sorrow of your dying friend will be short-lived. [And no, I don’t mean that as a pun. As inappropriate as it seems, it’s the only word that feels right to convey what I mean.Be available to hear his feelings and share his memories — while you can.

For the loved ones he leaves behind, sorrow will linger and stretch into a festering mist that surrounds, drenches, and permeates their beings. You can no more “cheer them up” than you can point to the sky at midnight and command a noonday sunshine to dissipate early morning fog. Acute grief must wait for the earth to turn before “sunlight” dispels its “fog.” You can’t change the weather of your friend’s grief, but you can sit alongside her in the dark and the damp.

You will be hurting along with her, but yours will be an awful, salt-rubbed, vinegar-spritzed laceration; your surviving friend’s will be an unskilled, dull-bladed, un-anesthetized amputation. In time — much, much, much time — her skin and bone and other tissues will heal — but that limb will always be missing. Acknowledge her life is forever altered. Even when it “looks” better, your friend is going to have “phantom limb” pain that returns. This time of year (the time of “knowing” and the time of “losing”) will ache for years — years — to come. (Jot the dates in next year’s calendar. Ink in a reminder during the month leading up to it, too. Plan now to “be there” for the long term!)

For now, what your surviving friend needs is your presence and your willingness to listen to whatever feelings need airing. No judgement, no filter.  Just acceptance, hugs, and tears.

A practical suggestion: Show up with a box of lotion-infused tissues. They really are softer, and when you’re using them over and over and over and over again all day and night, they chafe less. (Crying is normal. In private and in public. Anytime. Everywhere.)

Know that your friend’s emotions may — scratch that — will run all over the place. Survivors may feel the need for “permission” to laugh again. Or to feel very, very angry. Your friend may become despondent and depressed. These and other contradictory emotions may cycle within a matter of minutes and repeat relentlessly, or any of them may “settle” upon your grieving friend for long periods. Validate and honor the intensity of their emotions by acknowledging them. Never tell grieving friends not to feel what they are feeling. (I’m not a physically aggressive person, but sometimes I thought I’d slap the next person to tell me “He wouldn’t want you to be sad” or “Don’t cry.”)

Your friend will probably become woefully forgetful and distracted.* This may mean forgetting to eat — or becoming unable to stop eating. The same all-or-nothing  reaction may apply to sleep. Extremes of emotion and body are “normal.” Reassure your friend that it’s okay to experience whatever reactions are surfacing.

It will help your friend for you to verbalize how horrible the loss is. “Ugh. This is so awful. It stinks. It sucks.” [I never, ever use that last phrase, except relating to loss and grief.Survivors need frequent validation of their feelings.

It is painful watching a friend grieve when you carry your own grief over their loss, too. There may be times your friend will want to talk about the lost loved one and about their time together. Or, doing so may be too painful at first. Make sure your bereaved friend knows that if (and when) ready to talk about the departed loved one, you are willing to share those memories.That you also miss the deceased can only help your friend, but be sure you let her know you are there for her, not the other way around. Approaching the bereaved widow or parent or child with how terrible the loss is for you does not show your support for them.

When a couple of weeks or more have elapsed after the death, you may wish to tell your friend about local or online support groups. [One such site was among the first places I felt “understood.” I can’t put words to how “embraced” I felt when I read of others experiencing the onslaught of physical and emotional symptoms of my grief.] Often, viewers can browse postings without having to join.

My heart goes out to you. It hurts, mourning your friend and mourning for your surviving friend’s bereavement. It is hard. It is exhausting. It is important.

___

*How distracted was I in the first few months after my husband died? Although I’ve lived — and driven — in the same neighborhood most of my life, I got lost four times on the way from my house to the interstate!  (The route takes only two turns — at the correct intersections — once I’ve left my driveway.) In hindsight, it’s probably better I couldn’t find my way to the highway on any of those occasions.

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