A friend called me and told me her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She asked me for advice. My mother lived with cancer for two years before she passed, and I was deeply involved in her care.
Here's the advice I shared with my friend:
1. Don't grieve for someone while they are still alive. This is the best advice someone gave to me. It felt like having cold water thrown in my face, but it helped me fight my tendency to grieve early and often. The idea would jolt me out of sadness and into experiencing a beautiful moment with my mom. I tried to focus on the "living with" and not the "cancer" part of the diagnosis.
2. Take notes on poignant, sweet and funny moments -- jot notes on your phone, in a notebook or in an email to a friend or family member. This will help you notice, experience and remember more of the sweet, crazy, funny times that inevitably happen when you are with your loved one. Add details to your notes: quotes, colors, sounds, tastes, smells and feelings. By accident, I captured many things my mom said in emails I wrote during the last two years of my mom's life. Years later, when I had the courage to reread them, I was stunned by the humor, love and wisdom that was there in the room with us. (I put these emails into a memoir called The Tiffany Box.)
3. Fight with every ounce of your being to be present to your loved one. See them, and let them see you. Touch is powerful. Holding someone's hand can say, "I'm here with you. I love you. We're in this together." Eye contact accompanied by a smile or a tear is often enough. Be willing to be intimate and vulnerable with your eyes. Words are good too. Be brave and say things you may have been too afraid to say before. Sometimes, it's "I love you." Other times, it's "I'm sorry." You have a window to mend and heal, take it.
4. Look for beauty. Grace moments happen, but you have to look for them -- it's like watching for a shooting star -- you need to be looking to see one. A moment of grace can be as simple as light illuminating a flower or a person's face. Beauty gives us a moment to reset, rest and fill up when the journey is long and hard. Sometimes it's a sound like laughter in the hallway or a bird chirping outside a hospital room window. Sometimes it is the taste of a ripe, in-season piece of fruit. Sometimes it's seeing the love between two people (include yourself in the picture). Love is beautiful. Let it fill you up. When someone we love is living with cancer, we have the rare opportunity to be more aware of the preciousness of being alive. That knowing, the awareness of life, is the gift within the hell.
5. Small acts of kindness matter. I remember the nurses who cared for my mom. There were some oncology nurses who did small things that made my mom more comfortable. Maybe they put gloss on her lips or ice chips in her mouth. Or maybe they raised her bed a few inches or got her an extra pillow. Noticing acts of kindness and being kind helped smooth the way on tough days.
6. Practice mindfulness. It helps to remember to breathe. I hold my breath when I'm stressed, which makes everything worse. Getting a deep breath into my belly is an accomplishment. If I can, I fill my belly with breath and exhale big. When I remember, I breathe through five sets of breaths. I also try to watch my thoughts. I love stories, telling stories and listening to stories, but this also means that within seconds of having one negative thought, I can attached an entire line of thoughts that ensure a future disaster. As soon as I notice I've created an imagined train wreck, I stop. I ask myself to look at the facts and breathe. "Just the facts, Ma'am." One friend, when I asked her how I was going to make it, shared with me a Buddhist saying, she said, "Second by second." I would also add, "Breath by breath."
7. Pay more attention to the person than to the cancer. I know from personal experience that families fixate on sharing medical information about what test, surgery or results just happened or are coming next. The messages fly around through emails, texts, voicemails and phone calls. Waiting is horrible. Not knowing results is horrible. Sometimes knowing results can be horrible. Not talking to the person who is living with cancer and still alive is more horrible.
As a dear friend or family member, you have a wake up call. You have the rare opportunity to drink in that person fully. Enjoy the person who is living with cancer. Whatever enjoy means, do it. Enjoy their touch, their lack of touch, their smile, their grumpiness, their idiosyncrasies. You have them right in front of you. Savor them. When you know someone you love has cancer, you are on notice. Fight hard to take advantage of each moment spent together.
I gave myself these guidelines and did not follow them perfectly. Instead, I was kind to myself as often as I could be. I had good friends who laughed with me about things that weren't funny, and I fell into my husband's arms at the end of really hard days. Exhaustion and sadness sometimes overwhelmed me, but I tried to return again and again to savoring my mom while I had her. I knew I was attempting to fight the good fight -- to love and be present. It was all I could do and it was enough.
Kathleen Buckstaff is the author of two books that celebrate life and motherhood:Mother Advice To Take With You To College, a collection of drawings and wise sayings, and The Tiffany Box: A Memoir, an International Best Book Awards Finalist, a true story full of humor, heartache and love--told through emails, letters, diary entries and columns about the last two years of Kathleen's mother's life. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.
Kathleen writes regularly for The Huffington Post. To be notified when she publishes a column, please sign up here.