A few weeks ago, I drove to Virginia to spend several days with a close friend who is dying of lung cancer. She’s 39 with four young children, and the situation is so heartbreaking it takes your breath away. I was a nervous wreck before I left, worrying about what I would say and how I could possibly help her family during such a horrific time. I can nurse a kid through a fever or the flu and tend to my husband post-knee surgery, but I have zero experience comforting the terminally ill.
But I discovered that you don’t need an advanced degree to spend time with a dying friend. You just need an open heart, a gentle touch and an empty calendar. My friend has lost her ability to speak in full sentences (she can only mutter yes or no) so the extended, laughter-infused banter we used to enjoy is no longer possible. Touch has replaced the spoken word. My once feisty, fearlessly independent friend now wants to be held like a baby. I spent hours with my arms around her, braiding her hair, rubbing her back and covering her with blankets. Sometimes I shared a story or inside joke; other times we sat in easy silence.
By the end of my stay her husband decided not to bring her downstairs anymore; navigating the steps had become too taxing on her depleted body. So he moved a large recliner into their room and placed it by a window so she could feel the warm sun and cool breeze on her face. Her once-glorious hair is now limp and tinged with gray, and she’s startlingly thin. It’s as though the cancer cells won’t be happy until they’ve devoured every last piece of her.
The days passed quickly, and soon it was time to pack up and return home. But I wasn’t ready to leave. Even though I had spent hours with her, it still didn’t feel like enough. I also knew it was the last time I would see her alive. Before I left, I told her everything on my heart, including how much her friendship meant to me and what a wonderful friend, mother and wife she’s been. I also told her not to be afraid, that we would take care of her husband and children.
I realize now that I was given an extraordinary gift. Of course I would rather have her healthy and here with us but taking the opportunity to say goodbye and bare my soul was important. It was also one of the most profound experiences of my life, and one I’ll always be grateful for. And yet I’m still so sad—and confused. What can I say? Grief is complicated.
Sending love and light to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one this holiday season,