When growing older, we encounter illness and death more frequently. We may suffer illness ourselves, but we also witness illness and death among friends. In each case we might think of ourselves as called to a ministry, and the relevant issue is how best to serve.
A Friend’s Needs
We can see a friend’s needs fairly well by considering ourselves in a similar plight and asking what we would want. We will likely want to make our own health-care decisions, and we will want to put our affairs in order. We will surely want to minimize pain, yet remain as clear headed as possible. We will want competent healthcare professionals and caring family members.
Beyond those practical concerns perhaps our overriding interest will be to look after our relationships with family and friends. Maybe we need to let go of a grudge or seek forgiveness ourselves; maybe we need to reconcile with a family member alienated by an old conflict; or perhaps we need to assure a loved one that her life will remain good after our passing.
Such repair, tending, and affirming of relationships will help us see that we will be remembered and that our lives have been good. In these final visits with family and friends, we learn to appreciate the meaningful part we have played in the ongoing flow of life.
We Can Help
At such times, the key contribution we can offer a friend is our presence. If we live close, we can visit, and we should plan to visit frequently for short periods. When visiting, we might let our friend lead the relationship. He may have something on his mind.
We can have a story ready to share. Hunting buddies can talk hunting. Work colleagues can talk about the job, maybe sharing a joke. We should likely not intrude on unfamiliar aspects of our friend’s life. A fishing buddy should not ask about an ill friend’s family problems or religious affairs. Alternatively, if we are friends through church, it may be helpful to pray together. Friendships tend to be specialized, so the best guide is to just be present on the terms of the existing relationship.
What if we’re far apart? Be present through the mail, phone, or computer. A friend of mine from work told me how he responded to another colleague’s impending death. My friend sent greeting cards twice a week to his dying colleague, recounting short work experiences: the last faculty meeting, a story about class, a student’s success, a new development in the field, and so on.
The cards kept the ill colleague in touch with his work, and they helped him see that the work he did was larger than himself and would go on. Later, after he died, his wife told my friend that the cards were very special to her husband, that he read each one two or three times.
Finally, when visiting, offer to shake hands or gently touch your friend, whatever is consistent with the relationship. A touch helps almost everyone. It connects people, lets warmth flow between them, and shows genuine regard.
To help a dying friend, be present as frequently as possible, with stories, anecdotes, or remembrances of ordinary life. Allow your friend to lead the relationship. Extend your hand, and through it, your heart. Offer what help you can. Your friend’s life is important, and through these age-old gestures, you move with him through a celebration of all that has come before, and all that will follow.