Thursday, December 03, 2009

When a Friend or Loved One is Dying, How Do You Manage Your Time Together?

Saying goodbye is one of those parts of life that’s never easy, whether it’s after a night out with friends, a holiday weekend with family, or when a child leaves home for college. As difficult as those farewells are, there’s always the hope that you’ll see that person again soon and the separation will at worst be just a temporary break.

The enormity of the goodbye, though, takes on a whole new meaning when the farewell is forever, and the person with whom you’ve been talking or spending time is dying. It’s only then that are you shocked by the awareness that the time you’ve had together hasn’t been nearly enough and that all of the years you had to enjoy together have suddenly passed in the blink of an eye. All of the important things you always thought you’d have time to say suddenly and inexplicably seem to fall far short of what those fleeting last minutes together warrant.

Several years ago, I had my first experience with this when I paid my last visit to my maternal grandfather. Having been ill with cancer for a while and knowing that he was dying, he had come to terms with his prognosis and was at peace with it; I, however, I had not thought through it fully enough and tended to view it – in an unduly optimistic manner – as something from which he would recover. Just a few weeks before he passed away, I stopped to spend three days with him and my grandmother on a return trip to Alabama from a week of business in Washington. He managed to get out of bed and get dressed for dinner on my first night there, but that proved too much for him and he went back to bed for the remainder of my stay. During those three days, we had some great conversations and spent a lot of time talking (when I wasn’t out of the house running errands for them) – but never did the conversations turn to anything meaningful about what he was going through or move to a point where I was honest and forthright enough to tell him how I was feeling about his last days and how much I was going to miss him. I never got the guts to do it, and I regret it to this day – although I think he knew.

When it came time to leave, I was hit with the realization that this was it – I wouldn’t see him again. I leaned over the bed to hug him and tell him I loved him, and immediately broke down. For the first and only time that I could ever recall, he started crying too and said that he loved me. I’m sure those words had been spoken between us at some point during my life, but I couldn’t remember when; even now, this particular instance and my goodbye to him are the only time burned into my memory where I can remember either of us saying it to each other.

I still feel there wasn’t enough time with him, but there’s also a deep sense of guilt that I didn’t do enough in life to take advantage of the time I did have.

Not long after this visit, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie with the note that she thought it would be meaningful to me at that particular period in my life. I sat and read it in a single sitting one Saturday, with there being two results: one, I cried all over again with just as much intensity as I had when I said goodbye to my grandfather; and second, even more guilt welling up because despite the time Albom had missed with a college professor who he said had meant so much to him, he took time each week to go spend several hours with him – and despite the distance between my home in Alabama and my grandfather’s home in Virginia, I didn’t pick up the phone nearly enough.

This week, I had to confront it all over again. An older friend of mine who I have known for a number of years and who (along with her husband) had always been so kind to me and supportive during one or two difficult and challenging periods in my life paid a visit to my mother and, among other things, told her very matter-of-factly that she was dying. She, too, has been battling cancer for a while, and again I was hopeful she would recover, despite knowing how dire the circumstances were. Now, getting that email from my mother that this wonderful English lady was dying put me right back in my grandfather’s bedroom those several years ago.

I had written P. a note when I first found out she was ill without any expectation that I would get a response; after all, when you’re going through intense treatment to rid yourself of cancer, the energy to do something as simple as write a thank you note or send an email just isn’t there. My mother mentioned, however, that P. in the course of their conversation told me how surprised and delighted she was to get that note from me – undoubtedly surprised because she and I have had a chance to talk since a Christmas Eve service a few years ago, and delighted because I was not someone she was expecting to hear from.

And here, suddenly, was another opportunity to manage the time I had with someone who was important to me at a key point in my life. Within a few hours of hearing from my mother, I called P. – and we had a wonderful 30-minute conversation. Again, though, there was no talk of her situation (other than one mention of her treatment and her quick and almost subtle use of the phrase “in the short time I’ve got left” at one point during our chat), but this time it wasn’t really out of a fear on my part of bringing it up. No, it was – as my mother had warned me she would do – because P. left me feeling much better when I got off the call than I felt when I first called (and was afraid that I would fall apart on the phone). We talked about my wife and children, my job, and her children and grandchildren; we talked about the overall situation at a church our families had attended together; and we discussed our plans for Christmas. (If all goes well and she’s feeling up to it, we’ll actually have an opportunity to visit for a bit, which would be absolutely wonderful.)

There were no tears, no sadness, and no awkward silences as we danced near that line of discussing what was going on with her health. Instead, there was lots and lots of laughter, and in listening to P. I detected the same quiet acceptance and peace about what lies ahead on her path that I sensed in my grandfather.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has famously discussed the five stages a person goes through when faced with their own impending death. With my grandfather and with P., I found two people who had already progressed to the fifth stage of acceptance and who actually did more to calm me (whether they realized they were doing so or not) than I expected. For those left behind, though (and I certainly don’t think I’m stating anything either profound or original here), watching someone you love die isn’t something we can accept peacefully – we’re the ones who are often stuck in the phase of (in the words of Dylan Thomas) raging against the dying of the day, the dying of our loved one.

But rather than rage against this impending loss, or withdraw into a fearful place where you can’t find acceptance about the situation nor the courage to be open about your feelings, shouldn’t we be managing our time with these friends and loved ones more effectively?

There are all sorts of clichés out there - seize the day, live every moment to the fullest, take time to smell the roses – that relate to having a lot of time on your hands to fill. How do you fill that time, though, when the hours and minutes are perilously short?