Thursday, July 31, 2014

What to Write to a Friend With Terminal Illness

On a flight last month, I introduced myself to seatmates and eventually handed the mother-daughter travelers my condolence tips bookmarks.

"This is great," the daughter said. Her elderly mother remarked, "I live in a retirement community and we lose residents from time to time. The manager sets up a nice tribute display, and I like to send a card to the family." But their next question took an interesting turn.

"We have a couple friends who are terminally ill. I'd like to send a card, but what should I say?"

Let's explore this:
  • Terminal illness is "the advanced stage of a disease with an unfavorable prognosis and no known cure."
  • A prognosis of a number of months (or years) is not a scheduled departure date. 
  • The outward condition (appearance) and functioning of a person with terminal illness will vary and may defy others' expectations. 
  • Until you are dead, you are alive. 

Blogger Michelle Devon writes with firsthand knowledge in Dying to Live. She shares some riveting thoughts on the tug-of-war between living to stay alive and being the person you want to be.
"Learning to live with disease that is expected to result in your death absolutely does change your perspective. But as my blog title says, I'm not alive and dying. I'm dying to live!"

I asked Arbor Hospice's Lead Grief Support Services Coordinator, Melissa Schultz, LMSW to comment on the interpersonal challenges of living the "last chapter."

"The diagnosis of a terminal illness can be extremely isolating. Many people back off because they aren't sure what to say and are afraid to say the wrong thing. The most important thing is to offer a comforting presence. Whatever you choose to write, speak from the heart. It's okay to acknowledge the illness in a supportive manner, such as 'I'd like to come visit you, if you're up for it.' It would be a disservice to you and your friend to pretend that nothing has changed, but that doesn't mean they need to be pitied or avoided. As Maya Angelou stated, 'I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Every day, in countless scenarios, we have the opportunity to say "thank you, I appreciate you." Keep that in mind during your daily activities and when you write a note to anyone. Here are some suggestions about writing to be a friend with terminal illness:

Don’t Write
Do Write
  • I’m gonna miss you so much! 
  • Get well soon! 
  • Hey, Steve Jobs lived a long time with his pancreatic cancer, so … 
  • Have you thought of: medical advice/legal or tax advice 
  • What are you going to do about your (special needs family member) 
  • Good riddance to that boring job! 
  • Are the kids finally doing some housework?
  • CARE: How are you today? 
  • FEEL: I’m so sorry this has happened. 
  • ENCOURAGE: Take care of yourself. 
  • REMEMBER: I am thinking about you. In fact, I was just_____ and I remembered when __. 
  • ROUTINE: Did that last storm send (pet) under the bed? 
  • LISTEN: I would love to share a cup of tea sometime soon; I’m a good listener. By the way, my email is _____ 
  • ADMIRE: I admire your courage and always have you in my prayers 
  • AFFECTION: Give my love & hugs to __.

This blog post was written by Deborah R. Chappa, the Condolence Note Coach. She works in a Livonia funeral home and is an author, blogger and instructor on writing condolence notes. She is conducting a workshop on Wednesday, September 10 at 1 p.m. at the Livonia Civic Center Library. To register, call the Adult Services Desk at (734) 466-2590.

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