Tuesday, August 13, 2013

When Someone You Know Is Dying

Recently I had occasion to visit a person with end-stage cancer. I didn’t know his thoughts and feelings about his life or diagnosis. I’d sent a few cards since the original cancer diagnosis—before his doctors had predicted he had only a few weeks left. Now I felt I needed to go see him, but I wanted my visit to bless him, not hurt him, and I didn’t know what to say to accomplish that. The night before my scheduled visit, a friend who is a trained, experienced, wise and gracious hospice volunteer gave me a few tips. I’d like to share them with you.

I’m sure her hospice training is a more comprehensive toolkit than this, but here is what she said that gave me peace and some measure of confidence. She told me my goal was simply to communicate to him that he is here and he matters. One way to do that is to advance typical memorial service activities to include the living. In other words, say to his face now what I appreciate about him; mention his attributes and his legacy; and share memories and stories. Memorial services often display a photo montage, so take photos to reminisce over with him.

When I worried to my hospice friend that I’d accidentally say something that might depress him, she said her rule of thumb is to follow his lead. Also fairly simple and respectful. And even if your relationship prevents your saying, “I love you” to the person, it’s also meaningful to say “A lot of people care about you.”

So there you have it. That’s all I know about this. If you have additional suggestions, please leave them in a comment.

P.S. This man had invited Jesus to be his Savior decades ago; he knows he will be with Jesus in heaven for eternity. We didn’t need to have any preparatory discussion, although if he had brought up what he’s looking forward to in heaven, or similar thoughts, I would have followed his lead and engaged on that topic. If the dying person you care about is not sure about his or her eternity, you may wish to ask afterlife-related questions and help the person think through his or her questions. Remember the thief on the cross who made an end-of-life profession of faith and received a personal invitation from Jesus to be with Him forever.

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