Wendy's Blog

How do you say good-bye to someone you love?

by Wendy Keller, friend

A dearly beloved girlfriend and I were having lunch in the summer of 2009, bemoaning our plight as single women are wont to do.  My darling friend, a trim, attractive, intelligent, dynamic woman in her 50s, put herself on a dating website that very night.

To our mutual surprise, she met a true prince of a guy within a week!  I was exultant for her!

Here’s the shock:  he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer a few months after the Grand Love Affair of her life began.

That news felt like my heart was being put through a paper shredder.  My friend is among the most emotionally intelligent, selfless people  I know. She survived a horrendous childhood.  As a single woman, she adopted two young teenage sisters from foster care and raised them alone. She took care of her ex-mother-in-law until that woman’s dying day. She is a survivor who in my opinion, well-deserved the lucky break she got when she met her Prince Charming.

Her boyfriend is affluent, luckily, so he could afford the very best in health care.  Even so, the disease has a vengeance all its own. I found out ten minutes ago that the last rigorous treatment regimen has…failed.  He is in pain.  There’s a good chance he won’t make it far into the new year.  She is in shock, numb, aching.  She has been his constant nurse and companion all this time.

How does one say good-bye? 

How do you prepare to release someone who makes your heart sing? As a nation, we are watching the horrific burial of little children in Newtown.  I got a Christmas card today from the daughter of a beloved publisher who died of pancreatic cancer a few months ago. It reminded me of the laughter with her mother over 15 years as colleagues. As of today, I have three friends on “death watch” – facing the impending inevitable destination at which we will all someday arrive.

How does the human spirit cope with the Grim Reaper lurking in the shadows?  In times past, amulets, spells, chicken bones and special dances.  That apparently didn’t work too well.  How do we prepare to say Good bye?

Here are my humble suggestions, based on observing so many people walk this path:

1.Don’t lie to yourself or the terminally ill person. Staying in denial or preventing the person who is about to pass on from expressing what’s real for them (fear, peace, setting affairs in order, anger, dispossession of objects, etc.) is a disservice to you both. It’s uncomfortable or painful for you because you are going to survive. Let them do what they must to come to terms with their own imminent demise.  Be brave and listen.

2.Continue to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.  I mean literally.  If arrangements have not been made, make them now so they are there – just in case – even if the End doesn’t come for years more.  I can remember lying in my hospital bed being asked to choose baby caskets for my two children.  The task was so overwhelming that I will never forget the added anguish I felt then.

3.Try to get enough sleep, enough water, enough food and enough reflective time.  This is part of your journey, too.  There are lessons to be learned and very real emotions to be held and truly felt – not just brushed under the rug.

4.Rely heavily on friends.  Not persons related to the ill person, but those whose grief will be ‘once removed’ when it happens. They care deeply, but still have enough perspective and clarity to help you with practical things, to listen, to support you through this confusing time. Accept what they offer you – time, love, dinner.

5.Let yourself feel.  There is no “right” emotion for your loss.  There’s no point in pretending to be strong for others – especially not for other adults.  I think it is dishonest to put on a bright face in front of the person who is dying.  Tears are a tribute. An extreme display of early grief may be too much, but letting the person know how much they are loved and will be missed is wholly acceptable.  You don’t need rules right now – you need to be in touch with your heart.

Almost every adult you’ve ever met or even seen has been touched by the death of a person they cared about deeply.  By considering applying these gentle tips to your situation, I hope you will find the journey just a little bit easier.


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  1. How true and wise your words are Wendy. My father died around 24 years ago, but the pain he went through still haunts me. He died a horrible death from stomach and liver cancer and I remember all the times when I went to see him and sometimes stay with him, I couldn’t bring myself to talk about this horrible disease and the inevitable outcome which would take only three months from diagnosis. I now still question myself as to why I couldn’t talk to him and tell him how much I loved him and I still regret that. I didn’t know whether he had been informed at the hospital and didn’t want us to know and I couldn’t say the things that I really wanted to say in case he didn’t know and found out. I also found it so hard to hold back the tears and be ‘strong’ and show any signs of ‘weakness’ ….. but I realise now that this was wrong. In every case now I would certainly advise anyone to be open with each other and say the things you want and to feel and experience the time you have left together. Possibly easier said than done!

    • Hi Stuart,

      I really do think that what we do the first time we face premature death is a lesson for how we will face it “next time around”. You learned. There is a strong amount of evidence in grief recovery work that writing a letter saying all the things you wish you’d said to the deceased and then reading it aloud to a person who does NOT respond while you’re reading moves one toward healing. I’ve also found that appending a ritual destruction of the letter helps, too. I have written letters to my late children over the years. I often leave them a the cemetery on their graves, knowing that the maintenance men or the lawn mower or the elements will move those notes into another form in time.

      People always say, “He knew you loved him” but it’s my belief that whether your Dad knew it or not is irrelevant, because he’s not the one groping with his own death nor the things unsaid. It’s never too late to say them.

      With best wishes for your peace, love and abundant joy,

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