Monday, September 15, 2014

Should Our Dad Be Told That He's Dying?

[Reviewed and updated June 29, 2022]

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
Aldous Huxley

A reader writes: We know my dad is dying of cancer but apparently he still isn't aware of the truth. I don't find this to be right. I believe he should be told so if he has things he would like to say or do he can say or do them. I don't find that my stepmother is being fair with him. She has been a tough one to deal with during all this. She doesn't even tell us girls what is going on with our father. I was angry with her for this, but I have accepted that this is just her way for whatever her reasons. My stepbrother has called to tell me that hospice is dropping more and more hints, the signs of his end are more obvious, and it is really only a matter of time now. My sister and I have decided to visit him for the last time and say our goodbyes. Is there something you can share with me on coping with this being the last time I will probably see him alive? Should I say something about him not going to pull through this one?
I am scared to face this now. Any words from you will be appreciated.

My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of your dad's terminal illness. I can only imagine how difficult this is for you and your sister, and I'm pleased to know that the two of you will be going to visit your dad soon. I'm sure that visit will mean a lot to all of you.

You've asked me how you might cope with seeing your dad for what may be the very last time, and whether you should say something to him about his condition. I think that you will cope by just going ahead and doing what you plan to do even though you are scared to do it, my friend. Somehow we think real courage is about soldiers being the first ones to charge up the hill, or about firefighters running into a burning building. Yet real courage is simply facing that which we're most afraid of doing, and doing it anyway, despite our fear. Somehow you will find the strength to do what you need to do, and you will be glad you did. Think of how you would feel if you did not go to see your dad, and missed this opportunity to be with him one last time.

As for saying something to him about his condition, I can assure you that your dad probably knows a whole lot more about his illness than anyone else does, even if he does not acknowledge it to those around him. Keep in mind that this is his life, and his dying, and he will do it the way that he needs to do it. Also remember that we human beings are pretty well defended—we hear what we want to hear and keep out the rest. That is how each of us just gets through the day. Your dad will face his dying when he is ready to do so, and for all you know, he has already done that. As a man, a husband and a father, he may be feeling a need to protect those around him by not expressing freely and openly what he already feels and knows. Do not assume what he is thinking and feeling. The only way to know for sure is to ask! When you're with him, you might ask him what he makes of his illness or what he thinks is going to happen to him. Take your cue from him. If he's ready and willing to talk about it and he knows that you are ready and willing to listen, he will let you know what's on his mind.

I'd like to recommend two wonderful books that I think you may find helpful at this challenging time. The first is The Four Things That Matter Most, by Ira Byock, MD. He is an international leader in hospice and palliative care, and in this book he discusses how four simple phrases can guide us effectively through whatever interpersonal difficulties may stand between us and another person (and most especially when that other person is dying) to help us finish whatever unfinished business may be getting in the way. The four simple phrases are "Please forgive me," "I forgive you," "Thank you," and "I love you."

The second book is Final Gifts: Understanding The Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. The "final gifts" of the title are the comfort and enlightenment offered by the dying to those attending them, and in return, the peace and reassurance offered to the dying by those who hear their needs. I've also finished reading another book I'd highly recommend,by David Kessler: The Needs of the Dying: A Guide for Bringing Hope, Comfort and Love to Life's Final Chapter. If you just click on the titles, you'll go directly to Amazon's description of each book. They're all popular enough that I'm sure you could find them at your corner bookstore or local library ~ and if not, you can ask your bookseller or librarian to order them.

The greatest gift you can give to your father right now is just to be there with him ~ and that is precisely what you are planning to do. Let the rest just happen, and you will be fine.

I hope this helps, my friend. Please know that I am thinking of you and your dad, and holding you close in my heart.

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