On Death and Dying

“In this world, nothing can be said that is certain, except death and taxes” Benjamin Franklin

I am inspired to write this piece, by a friend of mine who recently announced on Facebook to all his friends, that the cancer had returned.  He said that “…it has spread radically over the past few weeks and it appears I have no hope of recovery from this relapse and little time left with you”.

This weekend I had the opportunity to meet up with him and a few of his friends.

It turned out to be one of loveliest yet most profound of occasions.  We all go to occasions where we know the reason for being there, christening, weddings, funerals, etc., but to be at one where the reason was to meet a friend who knows he is close to dying, was very different.

I learned a lot from the whole experience, and in doing so also left me with many questions….

On my way there, I paused to reflect.  Each and everyone one of us is actually in the same position as my friend, something which Pink Floyd captures so well, “one day closer to death”.  The only difference is that we have no idea when ours will be.  So instead of embracing each day as my friend is doing, we push it away, not talk about it, and allow our lives to be filled with ‘stuff’ that at the end of the day does not really matter.  We live our lives as though we have all the time in the world, yet sadly we do not.

As he said, it was only when he walked through the door of the pub did he realise, and appreciate, that he had actually got there (the previous weekend’s gathering had to be cancelled as he had been rushed into Hospital, and at that time he had no idea if he would be able to get down again).  How much of our life do we take for granted?

My friend shared that he has experienced more joy and more calmness in the last two years since he was first diagnosed with cancer, then he had done in the whole of his life.  He now feels so grateful each day for his life but in particular four things, which unsurprisingly, turn out not to be things or possessions, after all, i.e. family, friends, meaning (as in what you love or can get engrossed in for hours) and legacy.

He shared that when he first told people that he had cancer it made a noticeable difference to the way people reacted and talked to him, or rather found it difficult to talk to him.  Some changed because they felt they did not know what to say, some found it easier for them to keep away.  My friend’s reaction to it was so simple, why not just ask me.  If I had broken my leg and I was in plaster or I had been off work with the flu, you would ask me about it, how was I doing, was it painful, yet because it was cancer, we find it awkward.  Why is that?  What is it like to be the person with cancer when their friends stay away?  How might that feel?

In those situations, just listening to what is present for them is often all that is needed.  Compassionate, empathic, deep, attentive listening, for them, will be more comforting than any amount of questions.  Likewise sitting with them in the silence, however awkward we may feel, is for them nourishing beyond words.  Whilst we may not want to hear about their pending death, they may want to, maybe really want to, talk about it.

He also shared something very beautiful and moving.  He said that he had asked all his questions, spoken to all of the people he needed to, and in doing so felt at peace, nothing more needs to be said.  How many of us have unresolved relationships, questions that need asking, words that need saying?  Could we make that re-connection today?

I admire and acknowledge my friend’s courage and authenticity to be the man that he is truly.

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