In December last year we were suddenly struck by an opportunity to be stronger than we never wanted to be. My mother had come to visit us for the holidays when she was suddenly taken ill. There’s a back story, but the short version is that they discovered a 21cm tumour in her abdomen, and two weeks later she died.
Those two weeks gave us an experience we never asked for, and as a family, we all learned a whole lot from it all. I sure know what not to say to someone dealing with death or terminal illness now. Admittedly a lesson I’d rather not have learned.
If you’ve landed here because you’re looking for a way to support someone dealing with death or terminal illness, remember that every situation is different, and people are different too. These are the things we highly appreciated or felt we could have used.
It’s not all that hard, really, to prepare a meal. The problem is planning them, thinking about what goes with what. Unless you have unlimited resources, most people can’t afford to just eat out all the time, and when your life revolves around Morphine-runs, or physically sitting with someone 24 hours a day, in shifts, there are so many decisions to make all.the.time. that ‘what’s for dinner?’ is incredibly hard to answer.
Two things to note here are that everyone turning up on the same day with a meal might not be practical. If your recipient doesn’t have a freezer, they can end up with a fridge full of food, all needing to be eaten immediately. My friends used a free web service called Meal Train to schedule the meals so that we had a meal delivered to our house every day for just over two weeks. It was phenomenal. I cannot say how much pressure that took off me.
Provide disposable baking trays and dishes, and when you can’t, just make sure to label your stuff so that the recipient doesn’t have to worry about remembering who’s is what.
This might sound weird, and might not be appropriate to everyone, but two days before my mom passed away, we went grocery shopping (it was Christmas eve after all), so we had a fridge full of food. My vegetable delivery had also come, so the counter was full of vegetables too. I wasn’t in much of a position to sort, cook or store, so by the time a week had passed and people were bringing us meals, I had so much in the fridge that was turning or going off, that having someone come and just go through the perishables – even to take it away and turn it into meals – would have been a godsend. I just didn’t have the strength or foresight to deal with it.
3. Laundry/domestic services
Again, depending on your relationship or the people involved, but people still wear clothes, and unless there’s someone unaffected by what’s going on who is keeping on top of the domestics, things like laundry, cleaning or picking up toys still need to be done, but can seem overwhelming. Personally, I will never again say ‘if there’s anything I can do, let me know’. Because once again, there are so many decisions to make, when someone asked me if there was anything they could do, I couldn’t pin it down to anything. A friend who came over and said ‘I’m here for an hour, can I do the laundry, sort out the toys or is there anything else you really need done?’ is the one I actually gave a ‘task’ to. While you know people really want to help, it can feel so awkward ‘putting people out’ and sometimes you feel people are just asking to be polite.
4. Turn Up
Well, I’ve just said it. Turn up and offer your services. Whether that is as a friend, to provide a domestic task, or simply to take the children to the park for a while. Turning up says “I’m here. I really want to do something for you”. (Make sure you’re not adding to the burden, of course. Bring coffee, bring cake.) (I don’t know that this would work for everyone. Some people might not like it at all. You know your friend!)
5. Offer an escape
One of my friends asked me what evening I could go out with her. She said to bring my Kindle and we could sit together quietly and just read and drink coffee. And she meant it. We didn’t have to talk about what was going on. We just sat, together. It was so lovely. I needed it and now, months later, I remember that night as an oasis in a very difficult time.
6. Unexpected Bills
Money is rarely spoken about among friends, and that’s fair enough, but assume that when someone is looking after someone terminally ill, or who has died, even if there is life or funeral insurance, these only come later. If you want to help someone with money, offer to pay their phone bill for the month – we had to make so many international phone calls for family and friends abroad who we didn’t want to find out on Facebook. There will be increased gas and electricity or water bills if family all gather in one place – we had 9 people in our house for a period of weeks. It all adds up.
Then there’s also loss of income. Most people are blessed to have leave to cover them for emergencies, but that only goes so far, then they have to take unpaid leave and eventually that could become unemployment. Fortunately it didn’t go that far for me, but I personally lost almost a week’s income. In a minimum wage family, that can be crippling. Most people – me included – would have a hard time accepting offers of financial help. A friend of mine knows that and as she left my house one day, she popped something into my handbag. I saw her, she saw me seeing her, and she said ‘…just a little something for you…’ and it was £100 that went towards paying that mammoth phone bill. A kingly gift that you certainly don’t expect everyone to be able to do, and not everyone would need, but I appreciated it immensely.
7. Take the Children
If there are small children involved, taking them to the park for a few hours is a fabulous idea. Even better is dropping off a few new games, an activity book, or a new movie for them to watch. Something that engages them, giving the person caring or taking care of arrangements an opportunity to do so, or to do anything else.
This can be a tricky one too. My husband wanted to take Ameli to his parents in the days leading up to my mother’s passing, and I was dead set against it. I was just about to lose my mother – I didn’t want to be separated from my children. My inlaws are wonderful, kind people, but my child’s place was with me. In the days between the death and the funeral it may have been acceptable, but to be honest, Ameli was so clingy and insecure it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea either.
But a few hours in the park, or even just playing with them in the house is a sweet relief.
8. Accommodation and transport
When someone is in palliative care, terminally ill, end of life care or has died, family tend to come together. Offer a couch, sofa, spare room, use of an extra car if you have it, or even a spare bed if that’s all you can cope with.
Social media is wonderful, it really is. I received so much support via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, but when I shared the announcement of my mom’s death, I wished there was the option to disable comments. I say this knowing that a lot of people who commented on Facebook may read it, so should say that I really appreciated the outpouring of love. It meant so much. But we received a handful of cards in the mail too, and I will treasure those forever. They provided a tangible affirmation of our loss, and each one was like a big hug.
10. Know when to say nothing
The first friend I saw after my mother died was one I ran into in a shop. She shook her head and said “I don’t know what to say. I’m not good at this”. I cannot tell you how much I appreciated that. Everyone wants to say something kind. Everyone wants you to know they care, but they do not know how to show it. In your pain, however, there’s little comfort in someone being ‘in a better place’, and while ‘no longer suffering’ is a big thing, it doesn’t take away the suffering of those left behind. The friends who sat across from me, listening, letting me ramble and mostly saying nothing were the ones who saved my sanity. That’s where healing begins.
Have you been through a loss? What did your network do to support you? What could they have done? Help those who still have to walk this path with someone else know what to do to support them by sharing your comments below.