Dear New Shrink,
I am interested in a comment you made in one of your last columns where you said “if you are good with someone before you lose them, you will do much better with the loss.” This struck a chord with me because my best friend was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. Unfortunately his doctors did not catch this early enough to treat and he has been given only four months to live. I know that it will be hard to say goodbye and even harder once he is gone. What can I do to make the most of this short time so that I can better handle the loss?
Dear Saying Goodbye,
First off, let me extend my sympathy. I hate hearing this sort of thing and of course, it is a thousand times worse for you. There are no good words that anyone can say to help soothe this kind of suffering.
In the article you referred to, I think I mentioned that I had lost a few friends prematurely; I also have studied attachment and loss. In terms of future emotional adjustment, it is extremely important that friends and family do not take our pain away. If that happens, it will only go underground and haunt us later. Grieving is very important. It is natural, normal and needs to happen.
Often friends will say things in an attempt to take the pain away, really inadequate things like “you will find another spouse,” when your spouse is dying. Or “thank God you have a lot of other friends.” Like this will do any good at all. It actually has the opposite effect, making us feel as if we shouldn’t be grieving so much. I have said some really dim-witted things myself and then thought you of all people should know better! But to a certain extent, we are comforting ourselves too, because this kind of sadness is close to unbearable.
Regarding your point, being good with someone before you lose them is critical because if you are not, you will regret it forever or at least for a very long time.
There is a difference between an attachment and a relationship. With someone that you are close to, you generally have both. You are going to mourn the attachment when you lose it, no matter what. Again, it is natural, normal and healthy to mourn.
But if your relationship is not so good, then you will have regrets for a long time. By this I mean if you have just had a fight, or if you have resentments between you or perhaps you have never really told that special friend how important they are to you, how much you love them. Perhaps you owe them an apology or should share a regret that you both may have.
If you feel 100 percent comfortable in the relationship and there is no unfinished business between you, you should be fine.
To be sure, perhaps you should imagine life without him, once he is gone. Think hard, now while you have a chance, is there anything that you are going to wish you had said to him? Perhaps you can write a letter but not to give to him; it’s simply for your clarification. You will say it instead. You have a few months so you don’t need to say it all at once. But start soon because with aggressive cancer, it can all happen very quickly and with some of the treatments your friend may have, he might be too sick to listen a good part of the time.
I realize that this can be really uncomfortable to do but if you are mentally prepared, you will do much better when that final day comes.
Another thing is to not be afraid to talk about what is really happening and the inevitable — maybe even help to plan the funeral. Research has consistently shown that dying people feel very lonely when everyone around them pretends that they are going to be OK. Your friend is going to want to talk about his feelings and being a part of that can be incredibly rewarding.
Being with someone who is dying and with them when they die is nice for them and good for us. This probably sounds surprising to some readers, and perhaps it isn’t best for all, but most of the time folks are really glad that they were there in the end.
Good Luck! Saying goodbye is never easy but in this case, you asked the right question and you will be glad that you did.
Dr. Barge is a licensed psychologist with offices in Brentwood. Got something on your mind? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions will be kept anonymous; let us help you with your life matters!