Saying goodbye when someone you love is dying
That title sure sounds fun, huh? There are things that are easier to write about- cruise reviews or my favorite meditation ap. Yet, this one keeps pulling at my heart to write because I felt so lost during this period- even Googling "when is it time to say goodbye/cancer end stages/parent dying". Yes, that was my actual search bar at the time. I talked to two brave friends that had been through it and they told me of their experiences and it was helpful to hear and yet felt nothing like what I was going through. That's grief though, right? Your experience doesn't feel like mine because it's not. Your loss is not greater, or less. I've looked for it and I'm pretty sure there is not some scale somewhere, measuring up who is grieving harder and if you are grieving hard enough you get an Edible Arrangements, or permission to be an asshole.
It's been four years this week since Dad died. Four years. At times it feels like just so long. And in other moments it seems like a totally reasonable thing that I should just be able to pick up the phone and call him. My life has changed so much since then. I switched jobs, I had a baby, my husband is starting an amazing clinic. Mom is so sick. I have said goodbye to someone I love that has died twice. The first time was to our stillborn son, when he arrived at only 22 weeks gestation. Someday I will have the courage, like my friend Katie did, to write about what that loss was like. I'm not there yet, but hopeful that I can be some day. It feels too guarded, too heavy and too raw still- like if I write about it, it becomes less meaningful and less important because it is shared.
The second time was with Dad. And I want to talk about it because there have been so many people that have told me what their goodbye meant to them. I am forever thankful for the honesty of Dad's oncologist in guiding us about when it was time to start thinking about goodbye. Dad had Multiple Myeloma- a super aggressive blood cancer with one of the worst life expectancies in all of cancer land (not THE worst, but pretty bad). When he got the diagnosis, we were told 5 years would be best case scenario. Of course we thought that was just the dumbest thing we ever heard and surely they were talking about some weak people- not Dad. He dreamed of being able to ring this bell in the treatment room that patients rang when they had completed their course of treatment. That bell was a sign of hope. His oncologist was kind, smart, honest and she loved Dad. She let all of us "kids" be a part of Dad's care- allowing us to call her and ask for updates, to talk about treatments and giving us space to have the hard conversations with her. Mario and I called her one day when we were visiting Dad and Mom and had a break during a drive in the car. I remember that it was snowing and my one year old was asleep in the backseat as we drove along the back roads in Connecticut, hoping to avoid traffic. She went through all of Dad's care and then at the end she took a breath and said "I think you need to start thinking about saying goodbye. This is the last treatment option I have." She said some other words after that and I heard none of them.
In the weeks that followed I did say goodbye in some ways. I asked Dad what he would want us to do with the house. I asked him about Mom. I stayed at their house to visit. I missed my son's first birthday to take Dad to Boston for a last attempt at a clinical trial at Dana Farber. It felt like time was limited, but it also felt like there was still hope for a miracle drug to come through. In typical Dad style, one day he sat on the same couch my Mom has in her apartment and asked me if there was anything that we needed to talk about. I wish I had talked to him for hours that day. Instead I said, "I know you love me and I know you are proud of me." And he was. He died three days after this conversation and I am forever grateful that I was there that day. Even though we had this time to "say goodbye", and to have this conversation, our relationship feels so unfinished, and there are a thousand times I have missed him so badly and wanted him to simply come back. Not in a freaky ghost way either- no thanks! To come back and be a part of my life again. There are a thousand things I would tell my Dad if I could. Dad! My boy tells knock knock jokes! They are terrible, and so cheesy and you would love them. Hey Pop! I am trying to negotiate my salary. It's awkward and hard but you would be so proud of me. Dad! This is your new grandson. He is loud and silly and you would have loved him. Dad! I just ate the best sandwich! It has the stinky feet cheese you love. Dad, our president sends "Tweets"! Isn't that crazy??? (he would crack up at that, I just know it)
This is the problem with the goodbye part of death. So much is still going on after it. There was nothing left unsaid between Dad and I, but there are hundreds of things that I wish he was here for. I wonder now what conversations I will wish I had had with Mom before she got sick. That's the problem; no one marks the day, telling you- "Hey! This is the last day you will get to have this conversation! You might want to say what you need to say!" So here is what you should do: be brave enough to bring up death. Be brave enough to try and have a conversation about what the person wants or doesn't want. Be brave enough to say goodbye, even when you really, really don't want to.