Sunday, March 14, 2010

Top Ten Things Not to Say or Do When Someone Has a Terminally Ill Family Member

This post definitely goes in the arena of having a find something humorous in order to cope with a difficult situation. In other words, I'm not sappy or warm and fuzzy. I tend to be a blunt, suck-it-up-and-deal-with-it kind of person. So if you're hoping to read a loving recollection about coping terminal illness, this probably isn't the post for you- I'm just giving you fair warning.

My family experienced a rough bout around the holidays. My grandmother started feeling poorly in mid-December, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at New Year's, and passed away on January 23rd. In the interim, we all rearranged our schedules and pitched in to stay with my grandmother whose condition quickly deteriorated to the point of requiring 24/7 care. Throughout the month we cared for my grandmother, my parents, husband, and I continually shook our heads at the stupid, insensitive things that people said and did. I know, I know . . . they meant well. Honestly, it was easier for all of us to make fun of people's idiocy because it did give us at least one thing to laugh about amidst the stress. As you will see, I obviously did not inherit the Southern hospitality gene from my mother and grandmother.

So here it is, . . .

Top Ten Things Not to Say or Do When Someone Has a Terminal Illness:

#10- Don't assume the family knows who you are.
Yes, I know my grandmother went to church with you for 40 years and probably shared more about me than I even care to think about with your Sunday School class. I also realize that I look different than I did when I was five years old. The fact that I met you at church with my grandmother when I was five, still does not provide me with any clue as to who you are. Please introduce yourself if you stop by the house or attend the funeral.

#9- Don't Stop By for an Impromptu Visit.
Please always, always call before you would like to visit. Don't just stop by. You don't have any idea if the nurse or a home health worker is currently there, or if the caretaker and patient slept any the previous night. For goodness sakes, if a family member meets you at the door to tell you that it isn't a good time because they're having a family meeting with Hospice, don't ask if you can still come in. "No." The answer is "No".

#8- Don't Stay for an Extended Visit.
About 15-20 minutes will suffice. Any longer of a visit and you will wear out your welcome. In case you haven't figured it out, the patient is sick and the family is exhausted. The last thing they want to do is make small talk and bring you snacks while you chat away incessantly. If the patient uses all of her strength attempting to chat with you, she will be more sick and more lifeless than usual after you leave. Remember : KISS- Keep it short, stupid.

#7- Do not regale the caretakers with stories of all your current personal problems.
I'm sorry that your arthritis is acting up and your child is in the middle of her third divorce , but in case you haven't noticed, at the moment I'm up to my eyeballs in portable toilets, elderly diaper changes, and trying to keep my own children and family running. I am maxed out on the amount of problems that I can listen to and handle today.

#6- Don't bother to visit if you haven't done so for the last 20 years.
I'm aware that you used to live behind my 87-year-old grandmother when you were a child 40 years ago, but that does not mean that you need to stop by and visit her on her deathbed. If your explanation of who you are takes ten minutes and I (the gatekeeper) still haven't figured out who you are, you're not coming in. In other words, you're lucky that my mother, who is much nicer than I, answered the door and patiently listened to your stories about being a female dump truck driver because I would have kicked your butt to the curb before you ever made it in the door.

#5- Don't ask how long the person has left to live or if he/she is comatose.
Tacky, tacky, tacky and please, please, please don't ask these little gems in the terminal person's presence. Just so you know- the family does not know exactly how much longer the patient will be alive- only God knows that piece of information- and if the caretaker just told you that the patient drank a bit of a vanilla milkshake today, she is not comatose, but currently sleeping.

#4- Don't leer at the dying person's possessions or open their closets to inspect their belongings.
And for the record, don't ask what we're going to do with the fur coats or anything else in the house. We are currently rather preoccupied caring for the patient and are not excitedly taking inventory or dividing up the items in the house. For goodness sakes, do not make yourself at home and open the closets. Yes, this happened. A person who accompanied another family member into my grandmother's house for the first time started walking around the house and opening the closets because "he liked old houses". Yea, right.

#3- Don't ask to be alone with the terminal person.
If I trusted you alone with my grandmother, I would have already taken your visit as an opportunity to snag a little break for myself. But since I only know that you're a man who goes to church with my grandmother and who likes to repeatedly stop by the house uninvited- you're creeping me out with your request to have some alone time with my elderly grandmother. As my dad remarked when informed about this little turn of events, "Ick, we're lucky we didn't find him in bed with her."

#2- If an ambulance is at the house, don't call to ask what is going on.
Here's what's going on. . . An ambulance is at the house because a) there is a medical crisis, b) we needed medical assistance, or c) we are rushing around trying to move my grandmother to the Hospice Home to which she has just been admitted. Please note that none of these scenarios require that I inform you, the neighborhood busybody, of said event at the exact moment that it occurs. Yes, I know that I wasn't chatty when you called, but you're lucky I didn't say what I was really thinking.

#1- Don't tell the dying person to call you.
In case you haven't noticed, my grandmother is bed-bound and sleeps about 20 hours a day. All of her energy is devoted to trying to eat, poop, and spend time with her loved ones. She will most likely not choose to call you to catch up on the church gossip from the previous Sunday.

Yes, I know I'm not very nice. But honestly, would you want someone to do any of these less-than-intelligent things if you were caring for a loved one? To make it worse, they all occurred within a month-long span and this isn't even half of the story.


  1. Oh Angela! I am so glad you are writing again. I enjoy your brand of literary clarity so much. The closets! Unbelievable...

    It is truly a unique person who can conjure a smile from a story containing death and family and strangers.

    I love your curly haired self!


  2. Great, great post! Geez Louise, I'm always amazed at the insensitivity of people who "claim" to be part of the human race. So sorry about your grandmother...