writing a letter to someone who is dying
Many years ago, when I was in my early 20's, I was living across the country in Whistler, BC. One of my dad's best friends, Al, was sick with cancer and after many months of fighting, it was obvious he was losing his battle. Al was a part of my whole life. I can remember him sitting at my parent's kitchen table for as long as I can remember. He was a fixture in our lives and in the early days, we would spend evenings at their home and they would come to ours to play cards with other couples. There was always lots of teasing and laughing. Al was a character to say the least and attempting to describe him in words would likely result in a less than accurate portrayal of this man. When I got the news that his wife had brought him home to die, I felt somewhat distraught as I knew I wouldn't be able to fly home for his funeral. I felt a strong need to express my thoughts and feelings to Al and so I sat down and wrote a letter and mailed it to his wife. I asked her to read it to him. I will never know if he heard or understood the words I wrote, but it was so uplifting for me to write the thoughts down and know that they would eventually be released to him whether or not he ever comprehended it. I knew on some level, though, that he heard my words. Three years ago, my older sister received the devastating news that her very dearest friend, Rachael, had been given the news that the cancer she had recently celebrated the remission of, had returned and it had returned with a vengeance. Rachael was in her mid-30's and was a beautiful, glorious spirit of a woman. The cancer was aggressive and had invaded many areas of her body. Within days she was palliative and my sister few out to BC to be by her side. I was also a friend of Rachael's. I had met her through my sister and became friends with her when we both lived in the same city on Vancouver Island in the late 90's. We had been looking forward to a summer visit to Ontario by Rachael and her husband but we knew that this trip would never unfold as planned. I sent a letter to my sister to take with her to read to Rachael for me as I knew I would never see her again.
This is the letter:
Rachel died within three weeks. In early November, my 92-year-old Grandmother, suddenly became ill and was soon hospitalized with congestive heart failure. We assumed she would perk up and return home in no time but we quickly realized that her body was tired and was shutting down. After five weeks in hospital, my parents made the decision on Christmas Day to bring her home to die. This was not uncommon in my parent's lifetime but now with hospices and chronic floors in hospitals, most people die away from home. My mother was a Registered Nurse for over 40 years and so she feels very comfortable in caring for her mother-in-law at home in these final days. There is a lot of family around to make this possible and we all feel very privileged to be a part of Grandma's end of life care. Prior to bringing her home, I met my older sister in Ottawa and she handed me a letter to bring to Grandma to read to her just in case she didn't get a chance to see her alive again. I brought the letter to the hospital on Christmas Eve day and explained to Grandma who the letter was from and proceeded to read it. My sister wrote down her thoughts of Grandma and the impact she has had on her life. I know that Grandma understood everything I read and I know that my sister had closure knowing that should she pass away before my sister made it home again, her words were not left unspoken. She did end up seeing her again over Christmas and is now making arrangements to come and sit with Grandma as we have someone by her side 24-hours a day now. You can read a beautiful post about our Grandma at my younger sister's blog at, if you wish. I have lived very close to my Grandmother (within 300 metres) for the past six years and have had the opportunity to visit with her regularly. I feel as though I have had the chance to share my thoughts with her many times over and I know she knows how much I love her. I encourage those of you who cannot be close to someone you love who may be in their final stages of life, to sit down and write to them. Share all of the thoughts in your heart and have someone you trust read your words to them.
You will not regret it knowing that you said everything you needed to before the chance was gone forever. And the person who is dying will feel your love and will appreciate leaving this earthly plane with the knowledge that their life had a positive impact on another's life. This has never happened to me before. I just sat down to write what I know will be the last letter to a fabulous woman who has entered the last few weeks (days? ) of her life. Her breast cancer recently returned with a vengenace in her lungs, her liver. In no short order it was apparent that treatment was not helping, and now she sleeps, I'm told, more than 98% of the time. She rests without pain. She is without anxiety. She is my age, 57. This is not about fight, or attitude, or last chances, or resilience. It is about acceptance. I stare at the blank sheet of paper. There's the moment of crossing a river, into the unfamiliar before the first words begin. Start with the obvious. My dearest friend, This morning ____ told us the news about your illness and that you made the wise, and merciful, decision to stop treatment. He tells us that you are resting without pain, and without anxiety. This is as it should be, dear lady. The cursor continues to prompt me, egging me on, and it has no understanding that my mind has come to a complete standstill. Tears have given way to shock. Ink dries on the nib of my fountain pen. I remember reading letters like this that arrived for my father during the short three-weeks he lived after his diagnosis and before his death from lung cancer in l978. Some were typed. Some were scribbled on notebook paper or cards. We loved them. We -- my brothers, sister, mother and I - passed them around and read them; folded them up and read them again. So in remembering, I'm reminded that I'm not just speaking to my friend but to those who are there with her now. Continue to talk about your day as it happened. Think. Think. Think. So I took thoughts of you with me while Katie and I went for our morning walk.
It's one of those stellar days when a hint of smoke in the air brings in happy memories of fall. The dog sensed it, and ran off like a bat from hell. You would laugh yourself silly -- like we do - just watching her. Her nickname? Hot Rod. She's another chapter in our mutual story of "dogs we've loved. " Just trust and still your mind. Trust that the words will lead the way. I can't presume to know what you've been through and the byways you've had to navigate these past few months. I am sure you've done this with your usual grace and honesty. What I know with certainty is that the love you've brought to everyone you've touched lasts forever. I know it will for me. Stay on course. Return everything she so generously gave without thought, as easily as breathing. It stunned me to realize that we were only together twice, yet, like all who have met you, I can feel the light you radiate to this day. Mutual friends have said the same. I still laugh out loud when I remember walking through an Army Surplus store with you, and the stunned look on your face as you tried to imagine winters where you'd actually need eight layers of long underwear? And hip-length boots? What? Who knew! At the time you didn't - though you'd come to encounter them-- but on that afternoon it was all just another great adventure. Another great adventure. You brought equal amounts of love and adventure to every moment. Later that day you laughed and waved a powder blue bra in the air, amazed that you'd finally become an adult with bras and underpants that MATCHED. It was all WOW for you. That's because you are the wow. You brought everything into every moment, an abundance of love, of light, of adventure. You showed me that is impossible to live well without all of them. You need to go, now. And release her. You are surrounded by love, you are returning to the light. It dawns on me you've known this your entire life. You knew so in a natural way. You showed us by the way you lived. I am forever grateful for all that you are and the love you brought to all of us. Love never fails. I Corinthians 13:8 Yours. Always.
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