After Judy died…..I let go of her hand, I kissed her head, I said “I love you sister (I almost always called her that), you did so good, my girl”….and I left.
I left the room in a trance…..hit the waiting room around the corner and started screaming. I put my hands over my mouth and screamed and screamed. My brother John closed the door and held me while I screamed and said “I can’t do this without her!!!” over and over.
Judy was not only my best friend, she was the person who understood me like only she could. We were only 18 months apart but she was so much a mother figure to me as well….
And now as I’m trying to pick up the pieces and start living again, I realize how precious little there was in the way of “here’s how it was for me” information. “Here’s what helped me”, or “what to expect” when someone you love is dying.
So this is mine, for whatever it’s worth. If there’s even one person who feels less alone after reading this, my mission is accomplished.
- When the shock wears off, expect it to hurt, a LOT. Expect that it’s going to be messy. Expect that you are going to change. Try not to resist the pain….or at least try to be aware when you ARE resisting it. It feels easier to resist the pain because it’s something to PUSH AGAINST….anger is easier than pain.
- Expect to feel guilty when you are in shock at first and therefore aren’t feeling a whole lot of feelings. You might feel like you should feel a lot of feelings, but it’s your body’s way of protecting you so that you don’t go into overdrive with those emotions to an unbearable extent.Although sometimes, when the pain hits, it DOES feel unbearable anyway. It came in waves for me and I sometimes wondered if my heart could actually stop beating for all the pain it was in.
I also felt guilty whenever I laughed. Maybe you’re going to be able to get past that, and not feel that sense of guilt, and that’s WONDERFUL. Sometimes I felt guilty for not feeling guilty. I would realize that I laughed, and that I didn’t feel guilty, and then I would feel guilty that I didn’t feel guilty.
- It’s just such an intense time of emotion. Take as much off of your plate as you possibly can, especially at first. Make sure that you’re going to have the time to feel all of the feelings that are inevitable. Because if you try to push them away, and sometimes you probably will, it’s going to hit like a freight train and there’s nothing you can do when the wave crashes over you. So clear as much from your to-do list as you possibly can and give yourself grace for the items on your to-do list that don’t get done.
I had many “grief days” where I couldn’t do anything else.
- Therapy is a really good idea if you can find someone that you trust, who shares your values system, to help you feel the feelings. To help you actually engage in those feelings as horrible, horrible as it is.
Again, I really did, honestly, lay in bed at night, sometimes wondering if my heart would just stop beating because it felt like it couldn’t possibly handle all of this pain.
- Let people help, and tell them how they can. You might expect your friends to step in in certain ways and they might disappoint, because they often don’t know WHAT to do or say…but you’re most probably going to also decline offers for help too. Don’t do that, because they WILL stop asking if you keep saying no.
Tell them how guilty or awkward it makes you feel when they ask, “What can I do for you?” For me, my mind started racing with, “Can you make my sister better? Really, there’s nothing you can actually do for me, that would make this better.”
They were legitimately trying to help but my brain just couldn’t process it and I would feel too guilty to ask them to go out of their way to do anything for me.
So educate your friends by telling them, “Honestly, I don’t have it in me to tell you what you can do, because most of the time I don’t know what to say.” So please, if you could just pick a small thing, and do it, that would be great. Bringing a coffee, taking the kids for an afternoon so I can take a nap (or punch the couch till my arms hurt)….making a meal, anything.”
- “How are you?” it is a really tricky question to answer….it began to feel like the most insensitive question anyone could ask.
After my sister died, when people asked, “How are you?” I just sort of stared blankly at them and my mind was screaming, “How do you think I am?! My sister is dead! She’s DEAD!!!!!!”
So educate your friends, and tell them, “If you ask me, ‘How are you, TODAY?’ I will know that you really want to know how I am and you’re not just asking a cursory question. I will also know that you’re not being insensitive to the fact that I might be horrible today.” They need to know this stuff so that it doesn’t become a wedge in your relationship. The WANT to help.
I never would have asked this of my friends, but a few of my friends sent me gifts. The best one, was my girlfriend who sent me a card after my sister died, for her birthday, and it said “Let me be the first person to throat punch the next person to tell you ‘Everything happens for a reason’.” It was by far the best gift or gesture I received.
- Which brings me to my next point; educate your friends on what not to say. They need to know, because they care, and they don’t want to hurt you.Those friends who said, “Everything happens for a reason” meant well, but I just wanted to junk punch them. What could possibly be the reason for this?! What could possibly be the answer to that??
If her having cancer and dying was so that I could become a better person, how insignificant does that make my sister?!?!?!?! Just NO.
It’s hard, but we have to try to understand that people don’t know what to say. So educate them; when people do say things like that, just be honest and say, “I know you are trying to encourage me but that really hurts.””
Another PLEASE DON’T SAY THIS item to share: “Everything is going to be ok”. They don’t know that, they can’t possibly know that.
While it’s very well intentioned, we know that they DON’T know that everything is going to be ok they will want to know it’s a punch in the gut every time somebody says it.
- Send a text to your friends and take the pressure off: “It’s impossible to make me feel better, or to make this easier….and maybe you feel like that’s your job as my friend. Don’t worry, that’s not your job, I just don’t want to walk this road alone.”
My take on it was this: “I feel like crawling into a hole. To be honest, most of the time, I don’t want to see you, but I need to see you. And I need to know that whether it’s a good day or a bad day, I’m not alone in this”
- Let them lead. Expect that your relationship with your loved one who is sick might get messy, too. Expect that sometimes, you are going to be desperate to connect with them, and they just don’t have it in them. And that will hurt.Or you might feel a need to have an in depth, emotional conversation that they just don’t want to have – it hurt me, and it felt like rejection.
What helped me most at that time was to write my sister letters, that I wasn’t sure I’d ever send.
And at the end, when she was too weak to talk on the phone or FaceTime with me between cross-country visits, I sent her a daily video message so she could see my face and feel in my voice that I loved her.
I think it’s really important to let the person who is sick take lead in that relationship and what they want to talk about, what they want to share. But at the same time, I think it’s really important to tell them, in bit sized chunks, everything that you want them to know.
- Journal.There’s some good research out there on journalling and its impact on picking up the pieces of life, and I’ve found it to be immensely helpful, albeit difficult to get myself to do.
I vented my anger at God, my despair, the unfairness of it all, my fears for my sister and myself, my feelings of selfishness. I vented my heartbreak and pain, my seemingly confused musings, my frustrations with friends, my gratefulness for my family.
It was full of love, hate, confusion, fear, little joys, and the gaping emptiness in my body and soul.
It needed a voice, because without one, it boiled in my mind, my heart, my soul, and even my body. The very voicing of all of these things in that journal cleared the fog, even if just a little bit. And while NOTHING could have made it make sense, I know that I am healing as this new version of me, more quickly than I would have, if I hadn’t done it.
Walking someone you love down this road….it’s so hard, it hurts so much, and while it doesn’t even feel fair to talk about how hard this might be for you because your loved one is going through something infinitely more difficult, let me say this:
The more you can do to be as emotionally and mentally healthy (at least as much as is possible), the better equipped you are to be available in ways that matter for your loved one.
Walking my sister Home was the most important thing I did last year. It was my honour, my privilege. And I’m so grateful for my family and my friends, who held me up, who supported me when I felt too weak to walk another step.