Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Some thoughts about the terminally ill and those they leave behind

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

If you've followed my columns over the years, you know that although my family and I have reaped a great many blessings, we have, like most other families on earth, also suffered our share of losses.

In the past 10 years, I've lost my mother, my first wife and, most recently, my dad. My son, John, then, has lost two grandparents and his mom.

Recently John mentioned that he'd jotted down some thoughts about terminal illnesses and the effects they have on those left behind. I asked to see what he'd written, and he emailed me a list titled: "Things terminally ill people need to tell their children, spouses, grandchildren and other loved ones."

I found it quite insightful. When people we love face death, we naturally focus on what we can say and do for them to help ease their fears and their transition into eternity.

John's take — based on his experiences as a survivor — is that there are equally important things the dying might say to help their loved ones.

The points that follow in quotation marks are John's. I've consolidated a few of his original points and elaborated on all of them.

1. "I'm not dead yet." Although I may be terminally ill, it's important for you to remember that, every day our life together is still here to be cherished. Don't start the funeral until I'm gone. I might last longer than you expect.

2. "It is OK to cry, but try not to cry around me." Don't use the occasion of my illness to unburden yourself of all your regrets, addictions and neuroses. I have too many of my own issues at the moment — plus I'm too sick — to become your captive psychologist.

3. "We have too big of a battle ahead of us to get upset now." Let's focus less on wailing and wringing our hands and more on addressing practical matters such as treatment options, a will, insurance, a living will and the pros and cons of hospice care.

4. "We are not the first people this has happened to — we are not alone — and God isn't directing this at us." We live in a dying world. Every creature that draws breath eventually will quit breathing. Death comes to every family; in that, we have universal company. It's terribly sad, but it's not all about us. It isn't a punishment for our sins.

5. "We didn't do anything to deserve this, so don't treat others like we did." One of the saddest traps families fall into is to direct their grief at each other or outsiders in the form of misplaced anger and blame. Don't let sadness make you petty and mean.

6. "God still exists." One reason we believe in God is that he helps us endure difficulties. Don't lose faith.

7. "It's OK to be mad at God over this. It is OK to question God and your beliefs." God has great big shoulders. He can take anything you heap on him and doesn't hold grudges. Questioning your beliefs helps you grow spiritually. Re-evaluate. Discard the worthless elements of your religion and learn to fully appreciate the parts that are true.

8. "After I die it will be hard, but you will be all right." It's amazing what humans can adjust to. Eventually your own life will resume. You have my full permission to be happy without me.

9. "This is not the end of the world, the end of me, nor the end of you." Even after I'm gone, you'll still see me in my children, my grandchildren and in everyday life.

10. "We are Christians, so let us rejoice in death." Even in death, we have hope. We're promised that the next world is better than this one. Focus on that.

11. "Ask me questions today. I may not be able to answer tomorrow." If you want to know the story of my life or where I stashed grandpa's stocks, now's the time. I won't be here forever, so talk to me as much as you can.

12. "Talk about me openly, the good and the bad. Your children will ask about me — tell them everything." It accomplishes nothing to idealize me, any more than it accomplishes anything to demonize me. Please respect me enough to tell the whole complex truth about me. We're all saints and we're all derelicts.

13. "I'm sorry." Whatever injustices I've done you, I apologize. I want to leave here with our account cleared.

14. "I'm sorry you have to experience this." I didn't want to disrupt your life or burden you. I don't want to leave you. I love you.

15. "Enjoy living — but not too much." When I'm gone, don't view my loss as an excuse to be stupid or self-destructive.

16. "Use your experience to help other people through theirs." An awful lot of other people are grieving and lonely, too. Now you'll know what to say to them.

17. "Don't judge others for how they respond to their trials." Every person is different and so is every situation. Always, always be charitable.

18. "Life sucks — it's hard, it's painful, it's frustrating, it's ambiguous and it makes no sense. Enjoy it." Amen.