Family, close friends, physical touch, pain medication, and comfort all move high on the list for someone who is dying. I know this because I’ve spent time at the bedsides of three terminally ill women this year. But you might be surprised by what continues to be or becomes important to someone who’s dying.
I spent several hours at the hospital today with a friend and her amazing and terminally ill mother, Sassy Pants. Sassy Pants has a week or less to live, by the doctors’ estimates. She’s lost use of all of her limbs because of the disease’s progression. Her eyes roll into her head mid-sentence until you squeeze her hand to pull her back, and then she picks up whatever story she was telling right where she left off. Sassy Pants is only 61, a year older than my dad. Today, I was reminded, yet again, not push my own conversational agenda. Just shut the fuck up and listen.
I went to meet Sassy Pants because Sassy Pants Jr. and I thought we should write a memoir-ish piece for her to leave as a legacy. In my experience with the terminally ill, they need to tell their story one more time, or to get some shit off their chests like how guilty they felt that time when they ruined their littler sisters’ piano recital or that they want their husbands to find love again. My friend Jill wrote a 30 page memoir that included recipes and her family history. She and I talked and cried for hours about our ideas of the after life.
My friend Shannon needed something to look forward to–a trip for Cuba she insisted she’d be taking a few weeks later. Shannon never made it to Cuba but looking ahead had always given her strength in life, and I think it kept fear at bay before her death at 41.
What makes Sassy Pants so amazing is not that she is spouting all kinds of cliches about inner strength or making huge declarations about life or being so brave in while experiencing a horrifically painful end (although she is so so brave), but that she’s retained her sense of humor and even her potty mouth. After the nurses left the room more useless than Joe Biden’s foreign policy–Sassy Pants’s bald head was developing hives and then she couldn’t get comfortable in the position they’d manipulated her limbs in to–she’d say, “I hate these motherfucking idiots,” in the breathiest soprano.
Sassy Pants wanted me to hear her band’s music. I would find it in the folder titled ‘Useless Crap’ in her iPhone.
She insisted her daughter bring in her tweezers to keep up her eyebrows. The lady knows that pretty people get the best treatment, and she is gorgeous, no joke. There is nothing wrong with maintaining appearance, self-worth, and dignity even in death, so don’t be a judgmental twat.* I had expected a graying Skeletor. She is too thin, weighing under 80 lbs, but that has only made her cheekbones more pronounced. Somehow the bitch didn’t lose her sculpted eyebrows or Cleopatra-mascara-less eyelashes. Damn. I hated it when people wouldn’t shut up about how lucky I am to have such a beautifully shaped head and how like seriously they would never look so good without hair and eyebrows. Ugh. WHAT. EVER. I felt so ugly. And I’ve seen the photos and I know that I was. Sassy Pants looks somehow more beautiful than her photos from before that cunt* cancer came along.
Certainly, part of her beauty is physical. She has one of those faces that would be perfectly symmetrical with a mirror held beside it. (Shrinks say that is a formula for physical perfection).
Another aspect is her apparent strength. She doesn’t take shit from lazy nurses or a band member who doesn’t practice the clarinet part of the Beatles cover.
The last part of her beauty I saw today was that she has one foot in the spirit world already. There’s a ghostly glow to people close to crossing over and it’s not just from fluorescent hospital lights. One of the reasons I was there is that I hoped she might find comfort in talking about the afterlife openly. She did. When I brought religion/spirits/her ideas about death, she perked up. She needed to reassure us that she would soon pass on to a different level of existence. Every time her eyes rolled back until we could only see white sliver moons and I had to squeeze her hand to pull her back to us, I thought, “She already has one foot in the other world.”
That we listened and nodded and didn’t try to correct or force our own opinions–whether religious, new-age, atheist, whatever–into the conversation, I hope we brought her comfort.
I asked her, “What legacy do you want to leave for your progeny?” although not in such hoity toity words. She said, “Forgiveness.” She wants her family to put aside their issues–petty and sorta huge–and learn to forgive. Wow.
So here comes my point…
In our current society, we are so afraid of death, grief, illness, or anything that reminds us of us own mortalities. We shame or avoid people who remind us of these inevitabilities through words or avoidance. If you want to help someone who is passing on shortly, ask and listen to her thoughts on the after life. Hold her hand if she cries. It’s okay to be afraid. You should be. Dying really hurts and it’s scary. But don’t shush her with any stupid shit like “God has a plan” or other utterly useless platitude. Let her be afraid too
Also, let her tell you what she imagines for her memorial, partner, children, legacy, so she can leave in peace. Don’t be afraid to ask questions but read the signals and back the fuck off if she doesn’t want to get into it with you. Or, as Sassy Pants explained to us, you might find yourself haunted by an unsettled ghost.
*I do not approve of using the t or c words as an insult except, sadly for us feminists, they are the meanest, nastiest words I could come up with right now and I’m angry about cancer, and also, alliteration, assholes!
Discuss this EQ: What is important when someone is dying?