Terminal cancer, how do I help?

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Jan 7, 2012
My best mates Dad has end stage 4 prostate cancer and is severely depressed because of it, I really want to be there for him but I have no idea what to say. I have thought because he is a devout Christian that I would make him a really nice holly cross out of Australian redgum
Sep 24, 2014
The West!
I have a lot of experience with this.

Your presence, above all, is the best gift you can give. Having terminal cancer is a very lonely experience no matter how many friends you may have. There is really nothing to say to a person who is dying but "I'm there with you." Sure, give him a cross, remind him that a better world awaits on the other side, whether you believe that or not. It will all be over soon.

Best of luck. L
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DM Supporter
Nov 2, 2019
My best mates Dad has end stage 4 prostate cancer and is severely depressed because of it, I really want to be there for him but I have no idea what to say. I have thought because he is a devout Christian that I would make him a really nice holly cross out of Australian redgum
As I have been in that position that your friend is in right now - if you want to be there for him and you don't know what to say - tell him exactly that you want to be there for him as friend and that you don't know what to say.
This meant more to me than all people/friends keeping distance during this difficult time.

Sonic Purity

Grateful for calm, rational discussion and science
Apr 9, 2006
Pasadena, California, U.S.A.
I went through this with my father. I had the luxury of being able to basically move back into the family home in which i’d grown up, with him and my mother, for what turned out to be the last approximately 7 months of his life.

It may be different for you as a friend rather than immediate relative. Hopefully something here might help someone.

Listen. Truly listen to him, if he has anything to say. Hearing him, and if appropriate in the context, acting up on what he shares (as you’re able) is likely (about) the best any human being can do to truly give. If the cross is likely to be important to him, that’s great, but he hasn’t much time left and may prefer live humanity to even the finest of inanimate objects that he won’t be able to take with him.

For my father what mattered most besides having important-to-him people around was feeling comfortable that life would go on (within the family) in a way of which he approved once he was gone. My parents came of age in the 1950s, with that whole traditional gender role social scene. My mother was/is innately shy, so being a homemaker fit her personality well, with my father being the breadwinner and the one doing most of the interactions with the outside world. Their whole marriage he’d encouraged her to stretch out of her comfort zone slightly now and then, so by this point she was an equal co-partner with the family finances and keeping everything going. Nevertheless, my father needed to know that myself and my brother would be there for our mother in any and every way we could. Beyond being with him in those last months, my presence and actions demonstrated to him beyond any words that i was doing and would continue to do that, seemingly putting his mind at ease on this point.

My father encountered true depression for the first time in his life, especially those last few months. All of a sudden he could understand the burden his eldest son (me) had been dealing with for decades, which he’d intellectually tried to understand but had never truly understood before living it. I was able to help him through it with my experience. He came away with a deeper respect for a powerful strength within me to live through the burden depression for so long—another mystery (to him) solved, before he died.

We had contemplative, quiet conversations about the afterlife, both of us being non-theists. I shared my theory of Conservation of Spirit, which interested him. I was able to record life story interviews with him (audio + video), mostly so his then-10-year-old only granddaughter might in later years know him in ways she couldn’t at that young age. (Within the past year, my now 23-year-old niece took possession of the raw never-edited master files, grateful for the foresight.)

Even if it’s not depression, there may be commonalities between you and your friend’s dad where—if he seems interested or receptive—you may be able to help, possibly profoundly. Read him, sense him, listen to him, and you’ll know what’s appropriate. I learned with my uncle (my father’s brother) the last time i ever saw him that sometimes something i thought might be appropriate or necessary proved in the reality of the moment to not be, hence i never brought it up (despite all the advanced preparations i’d made for that discussion).

About a week before his death, my father unexpectedly fell and broke several ribs. We knew it was all over: his hatred of hospitals was legendary, so no matter what exactly was going on, we in the family knew he wasn’t long for this world, and wasn’t coming back out. He drifted in and out of consciousness the last several days. 3 days before his death he was awake and very lucid, giving me one final opportunity to disappoint him when i could not find a specific soft drink he very much wanted as one of his final wishes. That was the last day he was responsive to the outside world.

I share all that as setup for this: i’ve read that one of, or the, last of the primary senses to go when a person dies is hearing. From my audio and other experience, i know that when things are going wrong, the brain may not be able to process sound as well as when a person is vital and healthy, so signal-to-noise is important. In practice, i believe this means speaking as close as possible to the dying person’s ear, at low-moderate volume, calmly and clearly. Loud and distant sounds are less likely to be heard intelligibly.

Having shared this with my mother and brother, and being told that my father was soon to die, we each took our turns approaching him and softly sharing parting words. My brother and i had a misunderstanding regarding who would speak last, which led to a brief, loud argument.

People don’t have long-term control of whether they live or die, but i’ve seen over and over many cases where in shorter terms like days or hours, the dying person often seems to have some control. My father apparently had enough control for us to have a re-do of our final parting words, and get it correct, else it was chance that he remained alive another day.

This second-chance day, the 3 of us had things all worked out regarding who would speak in what order etc., so there would be no conflict, so he could sense the tranquility and die in peace. I spoke last. Throughout his life my father was filled with curiosity and wonder about the world and the universe, often wondering what adventures lay ahead. My parting words were encouragement and building up a sense of excitement and wonder for the adventure upon which he was about to take, reminding him that he was about to depart on that adventure, and was as prepared as anyone could possibly be for this wondrous adventure (being prepared was very important to him).

Apparently this was a sufficiently appropriate send-off, else it was chance: he died the following morning, around 4 AM local time.

While your friend’s father is alive, if you keep the focus all about him and pay attention, you’ll do fine. Once he’s died, then is the time for it to be about your friend and that family and you in terms of grieving/celebrating a life now over.

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