Conversations About Dying – We Need To Have Them!

“When the time comes to die, make sure that all you have to do is die!”
~ Jim Elliot

“Everybody will die, but very few people want to be reminded of that fact.”
~ Lemony Snicket

 

This post is the next in my Wednesday series on Death and Dying…

 

Last year a good friend of mine died.

She died from breast cancer – a cancer she decided to treat naturally. A cancer that completely ravaged her body in less than two years while using those natural treatments. (And no, we are not going to discuss cancer and cancer treatments today.)

My friend avoided seeing me for months and months after she first detected the small lump in her breast. Why? She was frightened of what I might see psychically, and what I might tell her. She knew I would tell her to see a doctor, and to get additional information and ideas about possible treatment plans. So instead we kept never being able to make our calendars meet, even though we lived so close to each other.

But I knew there was something wrong. Very wrong.

Finally her husband rang one day and asked if we could come over.

I was so shocked when I walked through the front door. Here was my friend, suddenly an emaciated old woman. She smelt of death. I could see cancer throughout her body. I packed my shock away. My friend shuffled towards me for a hug and I saw it, a massive fungating tumor where her breast had been – so large that it was preventing her arm from moving naturally. Her arms and legs were swollen from lymphedema.

I hugged her gently, and she burst into tears.

Can you help me? my friend asked. I need some help.

As her husband made us a cup of tea I followed her to the lounge, where they had set up a bed for her.

You’ve defied the odds, my friend said. You’re still here and you should be dead. What else do I have to do to get better?

She then gave me the long list of everything they were doing. The infusions and diets and injections and colonics and green juices and superfoods and anti-cancer foods and no sugar and oxygen therapy and bicarb and turmeric and every other thing. Such a long list of things. Such a stressful thing, this list, with its military precision timing and increased severity as my friend’s condition worsened. They were having trouble coping with administering the regime. And now my friend couldn’t breathe if she lay down. What else could they do? There must be something else they could do? She couldn’t control her thoughts. She couldn’t stay positive. Could I help her meditate? Maybe that would sort her mind out?

I held my friend’s hand and our husbands brought tea for us and then disappeared out into the garden.

I found some lavender essential oil in my handbag and gently applied some to her swollen feet and hands, and showed her how to breathe it in. Then I talked her through a meditation as she sat in her chair, propped on soft pillows. Mercifully, somewhere in the middle of all of that my friend fell asleep.

I took my tea out into the garden, and told my friend’s husband that his wife was sleeping. He burst into tears.

Will she be okay? he asked me.

You already know the answer to that, I said. She’s dying. She needs medical care.

Can you tell her? he asked me.

Yes, I said. I’ll be back tomorrow.

Artwork by Daryl Zang

Artwork by Daryl Zang

The next day I sat on my friend’s bed and we talked about dying.

These are conversations I have had to have with my own husband many times during my illness. We’ve come to realise that they are conversations we all need to have, whether we are ill or not.

My friend and I talked about the possibility that she might die.

We talked about how to manage her care and her pain.

These were long, hard conversations with many tears.

We talked about wills. Did she have one? What did she want to happen if she could no longer make medical or other decisions for herself?

Our husbands joined us and we talked some more. We talked about all the things which were suddenly hard to talk about because they had become so real and so close.

We talked about her wishes, and the need for a plan.

Just a few days later my friend was admitted to a palliative care unit. She remained there until her death six weeks later. Until a few days before her death she had truly thought that she would get better enough to be able to go home and keep fighting.

In that whole time not one medical practitioner told my friend that she was dying. They told her only that she had stage four metastatic breast cancer.

I spent much of those last weeks with her, for short visits. For some of that time I was in hospital too and we would text madly, and talk when we could. We laughed a lot. We cried a lot.

The thing that broke me heart was an incident two weeks before she died.

I came to see her just after morning tea and she burst into tears. She felt so guilty, she said. The morning tea trolley had come around and she’d had the most delicious pumpkin scone with jam and cream. All that sugar. All that dairy. All that wheat. All the things she had been depriving herself of as she continued her green juices and superfoods that her husband brought up to the ward each day. She’d eaten cancer foods.

Darling, you’re dying, I said as I hugged her and wiped away her tears. One scone won’t make any difference. What matters was that it was delicious! Take pleasure from that. Then I went down to the canteen and fetched us both an excellent coffee and a chocolate brownie that was so good and we devoured them and laughed and for a moment we were two old friends who could have been anywhere.

Image from North End Coffee Roasters at Foursquare

Image from North End Coffee Roasters at Foursquare

Am I really dying, my friend asked me when our coffees were done.

Yes.

She burst into tears and sobbed into my arms all of the regrets she had. That she would never get to travel. That she wouldn’t go home. That she never tried the new Thai restaurant, and we never had our beach picnic with the dogs. So many regrets. So many thing she would have done differently if she’d realised that her time was so limited. If only someone had been honest with her. She thought there was still time.

And she confessed that she’d known the natural treatments weren’t working a year ago, but her husband had been so committed to them, and she was a naturopath and dietician so she felt it was her duty to keep going. Now she knew she’d made the wrong choice. She hadn’t honoured her intuition. And that choice had shortened her life and put her on a terrible path of suffering.

The little chemo she had been given palliatively had shrunk her masses and given her a better level of comfort. But it was too late.

I could barely talk that night for the pain of it all.

When my friend died she went downhill suddenly. She and her husband hadn’t talked with doctors about what might happen. There was no plan. Things were managed quite badly for her.

My husband and I got back to the hospital in time and I helped her to have a peaceful transition. Her death became a beautiful one.

But she died without a will. Without instructions. And it took her husband painful months to sort it all out after she was gone.

We don’t know when we will die. We don’t know if we will die unexpectedly and quickly, or if we will have time to prepare.

The only thing we know for sure is that one day we will.

Please talk with your friends and family. Do you want to be an organ donor? Are there situations where you would prefer that medical staff did not fight to save your life? What other instructions would you have if someone else was suddenly making the decisions for you?

Is there a point in trying where you might want to stop treatments?

Would you go into care? What would need to change if you ended up with a disability or chronic illness? Or a terminal one?

Funeral? Do you want one? Buried or cremated? Donated to science? Scattered at sea or the family plot?

Do you have a will in place, or at least have your wishes known to your family and friends? Is there a plan for your home, your children, your car, your possessions, your pets, your finances?

What matters to you in life? Are you living that life right now or are you putting all of these important things off to some mythical time in the future that may never come?

Death is a part of life. Let’s start having those conversations. One day you might be very glad that you did.

 

23 thoughts on “Conversations About Dying – We Need To Have Them!

  1. This is such a timely blog, Nic. I recently spent a number of days allowing a friend talk about all the formalities, emotions, etc (before and after) because their partner has their head in the sand and will not cooperate in any discussions. This denial and obstruction is going to create a lot of distress and a number of headaches for the family when the time comes. (I also like Jim Elliott’s quote too – very sensible.) xx

  2. Thanks so much for this series Nicole. I so agree that we need to talk more deeply on death – we create so many unhealthy practices instead. I just read a wonderful book that our son Andrew who has just finished medicine loaned me on the topic. It was called ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande

  3. When my father was terminally I’ll, I asked many questions. When he couldn’t take care of himself, I spoke up about his needs and insisted on increased pain medications. Everyone else was jealous that he had talked to me and that I knew what he wanted. The thing is, I was the only one who asked him. No one else did. They were too busy pretending he was going to get better, as if it was wrong to admit what was coming. Ask, ask, ask!

  4. I am in tears as I read this. My mom has been battling cancers for 30 years. She had her large intestine out first and in 2012 had her pancreas out. This last spring she had her spleen removed and this summer went thru chemo for the first time. She had radiation when her breasts were removed 10 or so years back. She refuses to admit she is dying now and as her daughter and sole caregiver, it makes me so sad. She insists she can beat this again and her favorite doctor insists she will ‘with time, be pretty normal’ again. I’ve written about it a great deal in different areas, I don’t need to waffle on here–and I am so glad I was finally given POA last September and her will was updated in October. I keep telling her she needs to come up with a plan for her future and she will not. She won’t let me. She is fine and she has too much to do to ever die. Your words here are so important. I hope people read them and heed your advice.

  5. Pingback: Currents – Your Present Blessings

  6. Thanx for sharing such powerful experience.

    My dads just been diagnosed with lung cancer – we’re all terrified of what might come. The cancer, surgery, on going chemo, potential disability, compromised quality for a life. He’s been so full of life and activity.
    I’m thinking of travelling home to offer what support I can. All the questions you raise are valid but I want to ask how do you lock that shock and grif away so that you can be present. I’m a narrative therapist / social worker I’m a empathic human being, a daughter and struggling with overwhelm and want to remain optimistic.

  7. This is a truly beautiful story. I’m so glad your friend had you in the end. My mom passed away before Christmas and had absolutely everything planned and in place. We even had a meeting about how her funeral would go a couple of years ago. Her favourite music, poetry she had written, who was speaking- it was all ready. Her death still felt sudden and shocking, but that was a final gift to those she left behind.

  8. Nicole you are very right when you say these are conversations that we need to have. From the moment we are born we all know that death will come for us one day and we all need to be prepared, not scared but prepared. As someone who has had many people in my life step through the veil I think I have now come to accept the inevitability of this so I have made sure that I have had this talk with my own family even though none of them really wanted to. But I also have to say that the first part of this post reminded me so much of what happened to one of my aunts. As a strong woman who had always prided herself on keeping up her appearance despite being married to the same man for many years and having three children. In 1979 she and her husband came down from the country to stay with my parents. It was during this visit that she and her husband revealed to my mum (her sister) and subsequently us that she had breast cancer which she had hidden from everyone for over a year because she 1) did not want to lose her womanliness (breasts) and 2) she did not want to be a bother. Within 3 months this beautiful woman was gone. Please ladies do not ignore the first signs of this insidious disease. No one will think of you as a bother and those who love you will love you with or without your breasts. Light and Love to you all.

  9. So true Nicole, thank you for reminding us all how important it is to get your affairs in order before dying. My mother passed away 15 years ago, I accompanied her during her last months. (I live in Europe, she in the US) It became so terribly stressful as she didn’t want to “bother anyone” but it was clear she wasn’t going to make it. My siblings, who were nearer to her physically, shined brilliantly with their inaction. Somehow we managed to get her last days into hospice care, and her last will and testament filed before her passing, which was peaceful. It wasn’t until after her death that my siblings accused me of greed and self interest etc. as my motivation for coming home to accompany her. People Nicole is right, do your families and friends a favor and talk about these issues. Bless

  10. Thank you for sharing. I must admit I’m not afraid of death but I don’t really think about it.
    Great reminder to do some planning.

  11. Some people thing doing a will is hard and costs a lot of money, it doesn’t, in fact my mothers birth father had a will written on a sheet of note paper in his own hand and signed and witnessed and it stood up in court when it was detested. Many of us have nothing much so we can simply write it ourselves or buy a will kit from the post office and set out what we went done and yes I have a will that needs updating but I do have one. Dying is part of life and we have no idea when we will go my brother in-law died in his sleep at 46, it happens when it happens. I know I don’t want to die anytime soon but I am not afraid to die it will happen when it happens.

  12. Thank you for this Nicole. It was a very important thing for me to read. It gives me things to think about. I have always said there is no use for treatment. I would refuse medical treatment of I get very ill. I thought somehow that illness can be the “rescue” from this life and that if I get sick I shouldn’t go against God’s will for me to die and seek treatment

    • Nikky, I can understand why you might see illness as a ‘rescue’ from hardship and pain. But as to refusing treatment because illness is part of God’s plan for us? I have to disagree. If God’s will was for us to all die when we got ill why then do we have doctors and nurses and herbalists and healers? I think that the will to live is strong in us, and in our bodies. I’m so sorry that you find life such a battle at times. But I know that there are people who love you. And I am one. I’m glad you are still here with us. Much love and gentle hugs, Nicole xx

      • Thank you so much Nicole. It means so much to me.
        I certainly believe in doctors, healers and treatment. I have been myself twice to the doctor this week. I meant treatment when we are very ill and that doctors have no hope for us. My mother had cancer. Since she was diagnosed, the doctor said she has a maximum of 6 months to live. My father still wanted her to go through a very hard surgery, then chimotherapy and radiations. She suffered from the treatment more than the illness itself. I always thought after she died that what is the point? She could have lived those 6months enjoying her life instead of being in hospital. At that time, I truly believed in Miracles. I still do but I am now scared to believe. After her death, I got to a point where I thought that her illness was God’s gift of rescue for her. She is happier where she is. I believed that if he wanted her to survive he would have helped. That is why I got to the point where I said that a terminal illness is a gift from God and by seeking treatment we are going against? Does that make sense?

  13. So true!

    On Tue, Jan 3, 2017 at 3:51 PM, Cauldrons and Cupcakes wrote:

    > Cauldrons and Cupcakes posted: ” “When the time comes to die, make sure > that all you have to do is die!” ~ Jim Elliot “Everybody will die, but very > few people want to be reminded of that fact.” ~ Lemony Snicket This post > is the next in my Wednesday series on Death and D” >

  14. Appreciated so much the truths and insights of your post. The excruciating frustration of the medical field’s lack of supporting and preparing your friend sadly does not surprise me….

  15. With your friend you were brave and honest and caring. As you are in this post. You may find the poems on my blog over the next couple of weeks interesting: they are about dying. Thank you.

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