They were in their early forties when Debbie was referred to Hospice for terminal breast cancer. She was an office worker and her husband, Gary, a factory worker. Gary was standing outside smoking a cigarette when I drove up the steep dirt road to their Jackson County home. It was my first visit and I was a little nervous. You’d think I’d be over my nervousness after 25 years of Social Work, but I’m not. I wondered, “Will they be open? Will we click or will the conversation be strained? Will I know what to say?
I introduced myself to Gary and he immediately told me they didn’t expect Debbie to live through the day. The house was full of people and Gary seemed to need some space and some fresh air; so we talked for over an hour sitting outside on the hood of an old pickup truck.
Gary told me about finding a letter in Debbie’s dresser drawer about two weeks earlier. She’d written it intending for Gary to read it after her death. She’d written her feelings, thoughts, affections, wishes, and even advice about managing their finances. Gary, upon discovering the letter, took it immediately to Debbie and they talked openly about “everything”. For the rest of our conversation Gary was the teacher and I was the student.
Gary continued: “Tell them to talk about it. Someone should write a book about it. If I had it to do over again I would have talked about it more. I would have taken care of everything. It’s a worry off your mind. Believe me, I tell people that if they don’t talk about things they’ll be looking back and wishing they had. All you want to do is what the person wants, but if you don’t talk about it you’ll never know if you’ve done what they wanted or not. We had one real good week (after finding the letter), when her mind was clear, that we talked about things. That one week when we were talking was worth more than six months when we weren’t.”
I’ve heard so many family members and friends say to loved ones who were dying, “Don’t talk like that. You’re going to get better. Nobody knows for sure. I might die before you do…” We try to protect the ones we love, but sometimes protection feels a lot like avoidance and results in loneliness and isolation. It leaves us “together all alone”.
We don’t have to force the issues, but for God’s sake, for the sake of the one we love, let’s at least not be a barrier to open expression. After all, we don’t have to fix it or say something to make them feel better. As a matter of fact, most of the time people don’t even want our advice; they just want someone to listen, to understand. They long for someone willing and courageous enough to be with them where they are. So what do you say, let’s take Gary’s advice and “let’s talk about it “.