Friday, 6 January 2017

How to help someone live through death

Nine moths ago, I wrote a blog titled "How to help a friend who's Mum just corked it". I was reticent about writing that piece as it was so personal, but it helped. It helped me, and it helped others; I had a large number of people contact me after it was published to thank me; from those who had lost someone in a similar situation ("you got it SO right") to those who were facing the prospect of having to support a friend in need ("I'm cooking her a lasagne as we speak"), and it was those conversations that convinced me I had done the right thing, that laying out my pain and feelings for all to see was worthwhile. If I helped one daughter like me get a lasagne, then the blog was worthwhile.

But more than one friend said to me "Katy, you come across as so angry"- well I bloody was angry; someone took my Mum from me before I was ready to let her go; and more importantly before she was ready to go- she was 57 for fuck's sake.

One of those friends suggested that I blog again 6 months later, having let the dust settle (by the way, the dust never settles on a loved one's death, it just gets easier to sweep up with time). So I have, I re-read what I wrote in those horrid, desperate weeks after my Mum's death and here are my thoughts.

1- I was right.
2- It was a selfish post, all about supporting me, but death makes you selfish. It seeps into your every feeling and every action, you spend a lot of energy trying to protect yourself from your feelings and that leaves little time for thoughts of others. So to that end, this post is about helping the death-ee rather than the bereaved.

As with my previous blog, these views are purely my own, and everyone will experience the death of a loved one in a different way, but this is what I wished I had known before my mother told me that she had 6-12 months to live (she made 5).

1- Do as much as you can; if you can park everything else, do. I always wish I'd done more- and so will you. You'll wish you had gone to see them more, called more, bought better Christmas presents, gone on holiday with them, Whatsapped them more. You will never feel you did enough. When my mother told me that her cancer was terminal, I spent as much time as I could with her; or did I? If I'm honest with myself, I probably didn't; I still had a business to run, children to feed and a head to stick in the sand (or in my case a bottle of wine). Say "no" to other people when you can and spend time with that person- you'll never regret it.

2- Remember that the death-ee is still the person they were before they got sick. My Mother still berated me about the things she berated me about before she was ill; allow the relationship to continue along the same vein as it did pre-illness; the death-ee needs the normality of them still being your Mum/Brother/Husband- you may now have moved into a carer role, but don't strip away the basis of your relationship, that bond is what is keeping them and you strong.

3- Ask the difficult questions- My Mum died with so many secrets because every time I got the guts up to ask a pertinent question, I thought "oh, she doesn't need this"; but, you know what, getting an answer to a question you won't ever get another chance to ask is worth an uncomfortable silence- and often, as people are preparing to leave us, they WANT to have those awkward conversations- it's cathartic for them, so give them the opportunity. And on this subject- say the things you want to say- i never told my Mum I was proud of her, and I wish i had as i know it would have meant the world to her to hear me say it.

4- Give them dignity in vanity- Just because someone is dying, doesn't mean that they have to die in a lesser state than they lived. Five days before my Mum passed away, a friend of mine went round to see her and did her nails for her. When I walked in to see her on the final time she was taken into hospital (whilst I was half-pissed at a black tie event for work, thanks Mum!), the first thing she did was wiggle her newly painted fingernails at me. So make sure the death-ee gets that haircut, puts on a lick of mascara- help them to keep up the standards that they would have otherwise done on their own.

5- Accept their diagnosis- You telling they are not going to die is at best irritating, at worst it's patronising and exhausting, and they don't need to be trying to make you see sense when they are fighting a battle internally that is taking all the energy that they have- there is none spare to placate you, and any energy coming your way should be love, not reassurance.

6- Accept their feelings- Especially anger. You'd be angry if someone told you that in 6-12 months you would have to leave all your loved ones, the job that you loved, your home- and that where you were going next was something no-one had ever written a Trip Advisor review of. Unfortunately, as the people who are closest to them, often it's the carers/loved ones who suffer. The day before my Mum died she called me a "fucking twat" because her speech had become so laboured by then that I couldn't understand that she was asking me to shut her door. Shortly afterwards, her last words to me were "I love you".  People get angry as they are about to leave us, let it go, keep saying I love you.

7- Consider this might be the best 5 months of their lives- my Brother-in-Law is a philosophy lecturer, and he mentioned a book he had read that puts forward the theory that someone's last few months, despite the pain and discomfort, could be the time when they have the most love and attention from those dear to them. Flip that on it's head and think that, if you can, it's your job to make those last months the best they can be; unfortunately my Mum went downhill so quickly that we didn't even make a dent on her bucket list. If you can, go out to that posh restaurant, go to the festival, take the trip to Paris, sod it, you've got a credit card haven't you??

8- Accept the minute of life- Remember that it's the small things that make people comfortable. Two days before my mum died, she was determined she needed a pedicure. She was 48 hours from death, and there's me giving her a goddamn pedicure. It was only later that evening that I realised that her toenails were scraping on the itchy standard NHS blankets. She may have been dying, but why not be as comfortable as possible on the way there- so ask what you can do for them, and no matter how insignificant it may seem to you, do it.

9- Touch is key- Dying is lonely, the death-ee is the only person who knows what it feels like to be getting ready to leave, but we all know that a hand on an arm, a careful cuddle, a hand holding during a movie can make US feel better, so what's different? It is likely your loved one is in a lot of pain, so a bear hug probably isn't the way to go- but how about holding that hand?

10- Be there- Finally, if you can, be there when they pass. It's fucking terrifying, devastating and the experience will never leave you; but I can promise you that the death-ee doesn't want to die in a cold room with no-one there- it was my Mum's biggest fear. We were all with her at the end, and I believe it meant she died peacefully. You have the rest of your life to do what you want, so sit at that bedside, hold that hand, share a joke and make sure that the last thing your loved one sees is faces filled with love.

Katy x