After going through the "last days" stuff both as a primary family member/caregiver, and now as a friend wanting to offer as much support as possible to our friends now experiencing the bittersweet time of good-bye, I want to offer my thoughts on "how to help."
I want to say that I don't know everything. I've bumbled and fumbled on both sides of things. But I remember how I felt as a daughter watching her Mom slip away and I know what I've seen as a friend offering support and I have some general thoughts on how to really be of help.
I think a lot of this probably applies to all stages of cancer, but it is the journey of the last stages that has caused me to do this thinking and writing.
First of all--The words, "Let me know if you need anything," are truly some of the most empty words on the planet... Yes, I've used them. They are what fly out of your mouth because you really do WANT to help. The sticking point is that you have to put feet and hands to the words. Put a little action behind it. People who are dealing with terminal illness themselves or as a family member don't have the energy to call when there is a need. It's difficult to rally your mental capacities to a point when you can put things together enough to say, "Such and such said they'd help... I'll call them."
So instead of saying, "Let me know if you need anything," use a little common sense and figure out what might be needed. Bring over food. Our friends Sarah and Larry brought food at least once a week when my Mom was ill. Every week we looked forward to it. We knew that there would be non-cancer centered conversation, good food, friendship, something to laugh about, and a lot of hugs the nights that they came. It was wonderful.
Offer to clean--The last thing you want to do when your loved one is sick and time is limited is clean your freaking house. Laundry is a plague. Dishes are an abomination. They stand in the way of time together and they aren't very much fun on a good day.
At the same time, if the person you are supporting would prefer you didn't do those things, be sensitive to that too. Some people need to stay busy--need to clean, need to cook, need to feel like they are doing something to feel sane in the situation. Offering is a good thing, and make sure you really mean it. But if it becomes clear that this is something that isn't wanted, it might be best to back off.
Be a physical presence--the whole way through as much as possible. Don't be afraid to call. Don't be afraid to visit, as long as everyone indicates it would be welcomed and beneficial. Nothing helps more than a hug and a shoulder to cry on.
Don't wait until the 'last days' to check in and visit. I know, I know... You'll feel bad because you missed your chance and you have to take this one last time to see that person and say what needs said--NEWSFLASH--THE FAMILY needs that time. If you can be there to be of a support and it is WELCOMED by the family, then be there... but in doing so facilitate time for the family to be alone to say what THEY need to say. THE FAMILY AND THE SICK PERSON are the ones who are important, NOT YOU.
To add to that, I don't think there is anything quite as offensive to me as people who don't seem to care until the drama is at it's height. Cancer sucks all the way through. Having a loved one suffering with cancer sucks all the way through. It might not play like a T.V. drama to go over after the initial diagnosis and during treatment, and to be supportive when things are normaler and even a little bit cancer-boring, but you're needed then too. If you don't show up then, you prove your lack of salt as a friend. Then there's nothing but motives to question. And from where I sat as a family member, that hurt. A lot.
That said, sometimes it is helpful to have a hand to hold as you sit at "the watch." Sometimes what you need is a person to sit with you and your family member and be quiet, to hug you when you break down and realize that your family member can't hug you back anymore, and won't ever again. Again, follow the lead of the ones you are supporting.
This is something that is important in all parts of a journey with cancer, whatever the outcome: Don't just fixate on the cancer, or the prognosis. And at the same time allow people to express where they are without guilting them. This is a "follow their lead" area. Allow for venting about how much it sucks, or excitement about hair growing back after chemo. Do so by making room for them to talk about it. Sometimes a person needs to talk about their honest raw feelings about what is happening to them because of cancer. And sometimes, they need a break from that and want to talk about the latest Sale at Target and nothing more pressing. There is a balance that can be found between talking about things that aren't depressing and/or cancer related and allowing a person to talk about where they are. Be sensitive enough to find it. Usually it comes down to following the lead of the person with whom you are speaking.
Know when to butt out. I suck at this sometimes. I do. I want to help so badly and I feel so much better when I am physically doing something to support people I love that I can be overbearing and TOO present. But this one really is key. Ask--"Do you want people here? Is this a help to you?" And if you get the sense that company is overwhelming for the person who is sick or for their family get the hell out.
I guess what it comes down to is this--Realize that the time that a terminally ill person has left is precious. What is happening to them is all about them, and all about their family. Anything that you can do to maximize and enrich the time that person has with those closest to them is a help. Anything that takes away from that is not a help. It is, to be quite blunt, a burden. Above all, follow the lead of the individuals whom you are supporting.
So that's the Val primer. I don't claim to know it all... but this is what I've felt from the seats that I've had in loving people dealing with this disease.