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.

 

Reality Check – A Reminder of What Really Matters

Image from Mummy Quotes

Image from Mummy Quotes

“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” 
~ Stephen R. Covey

 

I have a beautiful girlfriend who is the ultimate career woman. She has worked for the same corporation for 25 years, starting at the very bottom and working her way up. She is one of those women who has climbed the ladder and broken through the glass ceiling. For twenty five years she has devoted herself to this organisation, and enjoyed a meteoric rise. She’s a stunning project manager, and she gets things done. They always call on her in a crisis. There is always a crisis. She works insane hours, lives and breathes company business, and is paid accordingly.

In the middle of this she has managed to complete a degree, an MBA, and to marry and have two children. She always wanted to have children but by the time she and her husband started trying for babies in her late thirties, pregnancy just wasn’t happening. She has two beautiful daughters, aged 3 and 6, both from IVF, which was a long and difficult process. It took many attempts to bring those little girls into the world.

No, this is not a post about leaving babies til the last minute.

It’s a post about leaving life til the last minute.

You see, my friend sent me a frantic text yesterday morning, and then called me as soon as she knew I was awake.

I haven’t seen her for a couple of years. You know how things are when people get busy.

She had news. The worst kind. She’s been diagnosed with aggressive and advanced ovarian cancer. It’s inoperable. They think she may have twelve weeks to live, give or take. There’s no time left for treatment. Only for palliative care.

She started losing weight eighteen months ago and put it down to stress. But secretly she was also thrilled. She had put on plenty of weight during each of her pregnancies and had never been able to get it back off again. Still, her tummy stayed round and bloated.

She hasn’t felt her best since the babies were born. But that’s normal for busy mums, isn’t it? Anyway, she always said to me that she was too busy to have the luxury of a sick day.

My friend left it so long to do something about the pelvic pain, the back aches, the bladder leaks, the fatigue, that when she finally made the time to see a doctor it was all too late. She is riddled with cancer. It’s in her bowel, her brain, her liver, her lungs, her bones. Everywhere.

What should she do, my friend asked me. She has recently moved her husband, two little children and their nanny to yet another new city while she works on a difficult merger. They haven’t really settled in yet. She began to tell me all about the work…

Screw the work, I said. Come home. Come home to your family and your husband’s family. Come home to the people who love you, and who can take care of you all. Forget the responsibilities. Now is the time to focus on what truly matters. Living. Loving. Drinking up every last moment. Creating the best kinds of memories. Gifting yourself and your loved ones the time you have left.

She kept crying, over and over, I thought I’d have more time. God, it almost undid me.

All her working life my friend has put things to one side; holidays, celebrations, lazy Sundays, time out with family and friends, because she though that one day she’d be in a magical place where there was plenty of time, and plenty of money and plenty of life left to enjoy all those good things.

heart

Life is so short. So precious. None of us ever really know how much time we have.

Oh, it breaks my heart, dear ones. It just breaks my heart.

I’m going to take a few days off blogging, while I support my friend through this next part of her journey.

Please, look after yourselves. Look after your health and your loved ones. Work out what matters and spend time on those relationships and activities. It’s the journey, as much as the destination. You know that, don’t you?

That great behemoth of a corporation my friend works for will get by just fine without her. She might not have realised it, but she is expendable to them, although I’m sure they’ll miss her, and her talents.

Her husband and kids? I’m sure they can’t say the same.

My friend, ever the one to seek productive outcomes from any situation, asked me to write this post. She hoped it may serve as a reality check for people like her, who’ve strayed too far from what really counts.

Will you hold her and her family in your thoughts and prayers? Her name’s Julie, and she sure could use a little extra love and light right now.

Thank you.

Image from Paper Masters

Image from Paper Masters