One night, one that would turn out to be about a month before my mom died of cancer, my dad, two brothers, my sister, and I gathered in the living room of the family house, surrounding our mom in the unstylish but functional recliner where she spent most of her time during her illness. (The “cancer chair” is definitely a thing.) I turned off whatever cooking show was on TV.
“Mom, is it okay if… we, um, spend some time sharing memories?” I asked, tentatively. Her eyes lit up: “Of course!”
Over the next hour, we surrounded her chair. Stroking her hair, kissing her head, and hugging her as we retold our favorite family stories. We went around the group, each us getting the chance to tell her how much we loved her and what an amazing mother, wife, and grandmother she was. She shared her love, hopes, and dreams for each of us — her pride in us, and how happy she was that her four kids were so close. We all cried, and we all laughed. At one point, my mom, who was devoutly Christian, prayed aloud for each of us. It was the one time I can remember her praying for me as an adult where I didn’t squirm.
That night is one of the most precious memories of my life. It was my mom’s, too: A few weeks later, as she lay dying, never to awaken again, her best friend told me that my mom had told her that it had been “the best night of her life.” Those were the sweetest words to hear, for all of us. The comfort that experience gave to my family cannot be measured. As we grieve, knowing that we had each had that chance to make sure Mom knew what she meant to us is a constant comfort. I’m so glad we didn’t put it off.
Because we almost did put it off. It’s the kind of thing your brain desperately wants to delay, to hope and believe you don’t need. I’d been thinking about this plan for a few months before I took each sibling and my dad aside, separately, to ask what they thought about it. I was surprised when each one of them was immediately into it — only because I thought they might be resistant to anything that implied she was close to death. “Worst-case scenario, she knows how much we love her for years and years!” I reasoned, optimistically. But I didn’t need to sell any of them. They were all on board.
Why These Conversations Are Important
So many of us won’t get the chance to even consider such a final conversation, let alone plan one, because we lose our parents suddenly. But for those whose parents have an illness that could be terminal, these conversations are the best ideas, the best things you can plan to do.
“In my experience, people who are seriously ill and dying are aware of the fact and are having thoughts about their life and their mortality. Raising the topic often feels taboo but is actually very important and helpful,” says clinical psychologist Kristina Hallett, PhD, ABPP. “Often the person who is dying is concerned about the impact on those they will leave behind, and initiating the conversation gives permission for the individual to share their thoughts and feelings.”
In the case of my mom, this was the first time anyone in the family had treated her illness as if it were terminal in a concrete way, and she seemed extremely relieved that we were finally addressing the elephant in the room. Looking back, I think of how lonely it must have felt for her, wanting desperately to have her impending mortality acknowledged but not wanting to scare or upset us by bringing it up herself. It would have been such a missed opportunity had we waited until it was too late.
But How to Bring It Up?
Hallett suggests, “You can initiate a conversation by saying something like, ‘You are so important to me. I hate to think about having this conversation, but I also want to make sure that we are being open and honest with each other. Would you be willing to share with me your thoughts about what is going on?’”
There are other ways in: “One idea is to review photos together, taking notes or recording the stories associated with the pictures,” Hallett says. “Another idea is to share conversations about family history, memories, and stories.”
Jill A. Johnson-Young, LCSW, a grief counselor and founder of the program Your Path Through Grief, suggests something similar to what my family did: “My absolute favorite ritual to do when [someone] is dying is to do a circle around them and to have those close to them tell the dying person what they treasure about them, what parts of them they will take on in their lives so their memory will stay alive, and a favorite memory they will always treasure. And for a dying parent, I suggest a quiet moment for each child with them to tell each other the things they valued about one another, the things they regret, any apologies they may need to make, and something they will always be grateful for.”
Depending on the family dynamics and personalities involved, there can be a place for joy and laughter, too. “Because this is an intense time for everyone, recalling a funny story or sharing a humorous memory can help lift the energy in the room,” says Sherry Cormier, PhD, a certified bereavement trauma specialist.
Of course, there are situations in which you might not want to say anything to your dying parent. Perhaps there are issues between you that are insurmountable, or you are estranged. You shouldn’t feel obligated to plan a love-fest if you’re not feeling it. But, and this is purely my personal opinion, you might want to have some kind of positive conversation, even if you have to think of it as being for yourself and your later closure. You might feel, later in life, that a parent who did not parent you well was doing the best they could based on the tools they were given. If you can put aside anger while a person is dying, you should definitely try, but sometimes simply being there is more than enough.
However you choose to say goodbye to your parent, these experts suggest doing it while they’re as lucid as possible, keeping in mind that with terminal illnesses, a person can be there one minute and “gone” (or actually gone) the next. Looking back, I would say the time to do this is actually when they and you first learn that their condition is probably terminal. (Remember: The worst-case scenario is that they know how you feel about them for longer than you expect.)
Think of the classic dorm room or late-night friend group conversation about which is the better way to go: suddenly and with minimal pain, or from a long-enough illness that you have “time to say goodbye.” Each is terrible in its own way, but if you have the opportunity to say goodbye to a dying parent, it’s up to you to bring it up and to take advantage of the only gift your parent’s painful illness affords anyone.