How To Talk About Death

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Q: I have a friend who is dying. We have been friends for over 30 years, ever since high school. We've been through a lot together - a virtual lifetime talking through jobs, marriages, divorces, and even as we discovered one night, wanting to date the same fantasy girl. But we are not yet old enough to have become familiar with a lot of illness or death. My friend's impending death is something new for both of us -rough, awkward, searing and estranging. This is not the way I want things to end.

Last week was our high school reunion. We both went. Needless to say, there were a lot of strained silences as old classmates came by to say hi and then noticed my obviously sick friend. No one knew what to say. Do you launch into talk about the good old days? Do you ask how things are going? Do you even mention the future?

What do you say to a friend who is dying?

A: Good for you for even asking this difficult question. You are showing concern for your friend and his comfort. We are all unsure of how to deal with tragedy in someone else's life. We know we want to help and we worry about what we should say to them. But sometimes while focusing on the other person, it's useful to wonder about ourselves. Why do these situations, or this particular one, make us feel so much discomfort? Answering that question can help give us a clue of what to say to others. It requires being aware of both sides of the interchange, the person helping (you) and the person being helped (them).

For the person going through what your friend is, there's no single right way to proceed. Each individual requires his own unique approach. In your friend's case, determining what his needs are requires the sort of proximity, or intimacy, that many people fear.

A wise 15-year-old girl, hospitalized once with a possibly debilitating but not communicable illness, told me that her friends were afraid to visit her in the hospital because they were afraid of her illness. What she understood and they didn't is that it simply scared them. Their thinking was probably and unconsciously that if they stayed away from pain, fear and tragedy, maybe then pain, fear and tragedy will stay away from them.

Sometimes the pain we see in others triggers a pain that we experienced way back --a kind of echo, sometimes greatly amplified, of the old pain. Sometimes, though, avoidance may be just one way of dealing with our universal fear of death.

So, think about what it is that scares you so much. Then, after coming to terms with your fears -not overcoming them, mind you -bear down and really listen to what the other person is telling you. You might have to listen to all the painful details or just might have to sit silently by, lending your support just with your presence. Sometimes being a good friend means accepting that your friend might want some distance from others, that he needs some time on his own to find the strength to gather his dwindling strength and resources. It's comforting for someone in his condition to know that people are available, but his first priority is to plug in his own batteries. This urge to withdraw can leave friends feeling helpless or powerless, sometime even hurt or angry. We all prefer to take action - so send an email, leave a phone message, write a note. Believe me, if you just make your friend aware that you are there, he will appreciate that and it will give him strength and comfort.

And finally there is always the awful question of whether this disease, this life-ending condition, has so changed your friend that he can no longer be your friend -not as he was, anyway. Your friend may have at one point been the stronger of you two. He may have been the leader or maybe even the clown. Now, the relationship is being redefined. He can no longer be who you are expecting him to be. He will be a new friend, facing new challenges, with new needs, and with a new identity. He is looking to you to easily adjust to these new roles and new ways of communicating.

So, be ready to listen, to embrace him, and to give him what he needs. Don't forget to understand your own expectations of him from the past. Don't ignore your own fears. And soon you will find yourself growing as you accept the new ground rules of your friendship. You will become proud of your new ability to hear and to adjust to a friendship that entails no judgment and offers unconditional support. You will love the new levels of friendship that you now have with your old friend.

A simple answer to the question of what to say to a friend who is dying or in great pain? Approach, don't be afraid, be honest and ask questions. Don't assume you understand or can make the pain go away. What you can do is listen, respond and give back what is needed, even if that is silence.