Earlier this year, when my husband, Scott, and I visited his parents in their Chicago retirement home, I overheard two men talking about someone who just died.
“You heard Jack died, right?” said one man.
“Sure did,” said the man whose name I later learned was Jerry.
“You going to the funeral in Florida?”
Jerry replied, “Sure am. Started a savings account long ago so I could travel to the funerals of friends, no matter where in the world they died.”
I thought that was a good idea. Especially if you are no longer saving for college or weddings or babies. But then I thought better of it. Not for funerals. I didn’t want to travel for a funeral. I wanted to see the people BEFORE they died.
It always struck me as a little funny and a little sad when my parents would come back from a funeral and said something like “Oh, he would have loved his funeral. So many of his friends were there.”
Now I can understand if it’s a surprise death like an accident or an illness that didn’t allow anyone to prepare, but a death proceeded by a diagnosis usually allows time to at least call the person.
And therein lies the rub. What do you say to a dying person?
Less than 24 hours after my self-proclaimed travel program, Scott and I received not one, but two phone calls. The first one from our dearest friends in England, Derek, and the other from Scott’s best friend, Joe, from high school. Both had cancer. Both weren’t sure how much longer they would live. Joe thought the treatment would save his life. Derek already heard from his doctor that his cancer was not treatable. He had maybe 6 months, maybe a year.
And the travel plans began. I was in charge of the England trip. Scott took care of our trip to Indiana.
It was the best money we’ve ever spent. To be with these two lovely human beings and their spouses, families, and friends proved such a gift. Both cancer patients were in okay shape. Okay enough to go out with us to dinner or sit around the telly watching a rugby match. We laughed till we cried. We cried until we laughed. And we were present. We talked … but mainly we listened. The time we spent with our friends was a gift we can never replace.
Scott’s friend Joe did recover though it was a very long and awful journey. We lost Derek this past week.
Before he died, I wanted Derek to know what he meant to me these past 35 years. Oh, he knew we loved him dearly. Not many people pick up and fly 5,000 miles one-way to be with just any friend. But what really bothered me after our visit was that I never told him what he meant to me. So as a writer, I planned to write him a letter.
I searched the Internet under the topic “letter to dying friend before they die” finding scant resources. Just a few ideas here and there.
I found a few “lessons” that are helpful IF you are actually in the room with the dying person. Two of those lessons include:
• Don’t wait until the last minute. (Obviously you might not know when that is so do it NOW).
• Truth is good — but so is the little white lie. (You don’t have to say everything that’s on your mind.)
The rest of the lessons I found involved being present in the room.
But I wanted to write my letter! I wanted to say the words without interruptions or nervousness on my part.
With nothing to guide me, I began to wonder if there were any important “rules” or etiquette I should follow. My first thought was to ask permission. I contacted Derek’s wife.
“Hi Diane,” I lead off in my text, “I want to write Derek a letter. I promise it’s not morbid or sad. I just want him to know what a powerful presence he’s been in my life all these years. Do you think that would be okay?”
Her response: “Elizabeth, that would be wonderful.”
And so I began my letter. It didn’t take me long to write because I had thought it through so many times.
“Dear Derek, I wrote. “About 35 years ago, I was a young woman, a friend of friend of your wife’s. Someone you had never met and probably thought you would never see again.”
I told him of the first time we met and what our friendship meant to me over the years. And I ended the letter saying: “I’m telling you all this now, not because it’s now or never, but because, well, it’s now and now is all any of us have.”
Below are some tips for writing that letter. Please don’t delay. Today is all any of us have.
1. If you’re choosing between writing something or saying nothing, you’re almost always better off writing something.
2. Trust your kindness capabilities.
3. Ignore roadblocks, e.g. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Realize you are making it harder than it needs to be.
4. Write from the heart. Don’t overanalyze.
5. Don’t try to talk your loved one out of their pain. They mostly need your kindness of reaching out to them.
6. Remember comparisons are always annoying.
7. Avoid suggesting cures and using the word “should.”
8. Do write to the loved one about:
- a. Something they did that meant a lot to you
b. Something they did that comforted or helped you
c. An amazing gift they gave you in your own difficult times (Often that gift is the gift of listening/love)
9. Don’t expect your loved one to respond to your letter. You can even add: “No need to write back.”
10. If possible, write the letter on special paper and mail it. The act of sending mail rather than a quick email or text says you took extra time for this extra-special someone.
Additional information for the article found in one of my favorite books There is no Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by (Kelsey Crowe, 2017)