Friday, February 5, 2010

What do you say to a person who is dying?

The other day a patient tearfully asked me, "What do you say to a person who is dying?" It wasn't the right time to answer her question. Mostly because she didn't really want an answer; it was the time for grieving the recent loss of a young friend, not for answering questions of deathbed etiquette. It was the time for expressing the shock and pain of witnessing a progressive and pernicious disease take the life of a young person. It was the time for first attempts at clarifying the meaning of the loss and its still vague implications for life lessons. However, when the time is right, I will answer the question.

As a hospice chaplain, with patients with whom I had shared the long and winding journey from diagnosis to last minutes, I said what I felt: "When you die, you take a piece of me with you; and you leave a piece of yourself with me. You live on, inside of me. Thank you for sharing your journey with me." The look of peace and contentment on their face said it all. To another person, I said, "I will miss you. I will miss your sense of humor, your quick mind, our deep conversations." To a beloved uncle-by-marriage, I spoke the unvarnished truth, "Thank you for being such a great uncle. You were truly one of the finest men in my life." To the cat of my dreams, the cat that my daughter cherished, I remember thinking, "Thank you for all you gave to my daughter...and me."

Truth be told, no one knows the meaning of the loss more than the two of you who share the goodbye---and that includes saying goodbye to a marriage, sending a child off to college, or saying goodbye for the rest of a lifetime. The words that pass between you should come from the heart of your relationship. And, the simpler and the more direct the words are, the better. As we say goodbye for the last time, can you imagine that there is there anything more meaningful to the dying person than to know that she or he will not be forgotten? Is there anything more powerful than knowing that you will live on, at least a little bit, in the memories of those whose lives you touched? What do you think you would want to hear as you say goodbye to this world and the people you love?

As for me, well, I'd like to be remembered.

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