When my friend died, she taught me a timely lesson about living and dying, which changed my life.
She knew she only had a short time left to live. We knew she would die, soon. We knew, but we did not say it. Yet our actions showed we did not avoid the inevitable.
True friendship stands the test of time – during life and in death.
When my friend was dying, I lost my voice. I was left speechless with grief. Not literally, but I might as well have been.
Speechless with grief is common and necessary to cope and to make sense with loss. And then speech will re-emerge, the same, yet different.
What had happened?
When my friend found out that her breast cancer had returned, it was terminal. She had only a few weeks left to live.
The hospital had done what it could, and my friend decided to spend what was left as close to her home as possible. Staying in her own home was not an option and she decided to be moved into a local care home, that offered palliative care beds.
Friends and family rallied around, kept her company and looked after her every needs.
Everything becomes small.
During that time the world became a smaller place. It had to, because there was too much going on.
When grieving, we can only cope with so much.
I notice that my language changed. There was less of it, less talking with others and with myself and longer periods of silence spent with my friend. And silence in me, as if something had been switched off.
The suddenness and shock of the impending good bye and the brutal reminder of my own mortality left me silent with grief.
The world became small, because her and all our emotional and physical energy drained rapidly.
Yet language matters.
Language needed to be precise when dealing with medics and nursing staff, to ensure our friend’s care was in line with her rapidly changing circumstances and in line with her wishes.
Our friend had prioritised the company of her friends and family over all else. She had prioritised language, speech and physical presence. That was the quality of life and quality of dying she wanted. And it was so different to what I had experienced at some other point, when the person dying did not want to talk.
When my friend died, she wanted to hear us talk – with each other and with her. She wanted to remain part of a group and a community.
Poetry read by her bedside moved our friend, when her limbs had gone into paralysis. Her mind and heart, not to speak of her steely determination and loving humanity, they all remained in tact, while her body was getting weaker by the day.
She kept it going – her identity, her values, her points of view – a woman with attitude. She was not silent.
Physical touch matters, too.
My friend could no longer touch. But she could feel the touch she received
- when her legs and arms were massaged,
- her cracked lips soothed with balm,
- the spoon lifted up to her mouth feeding her,
- the kisses she craved,
- and our tears which she understood, but I think struggled with it and probably did not like.
The last weeks and days
The knowing silence, when words failed, that was language, too, and intimacy.
Then – we cannot keep going as if nothing was happening. We need to slow down, reprioritise, delegate and simply stop doing some things altogether.
I stopped talking – the unnecessary small stuff, and some of the big stuff, too. I stopped writing, because I could no longer feel the words flowing from the feelings I felt.
There was no flow. It all became lumpy, hard and frozen.
Our friend remained fully involved in all her care and treatment decisions. Time was spent deciding and organising what she wanted to happen after her death – with her body, her possessions, her own art and writing – her legacy.
It all happened with little drama. It was precise, calm and peaceful – unbelievable, really.
We took it in turns to sleep on a mattress in her room. When it was my turn the oxygen machine and the smell of the care home blankets kept me awake. How could our friend cope with it all, without being able to move, knowing she was dying?
That night she asked me to keep one window and curtain open. She loved the dawn chorus and being near to the trees and the river, we could hear it.
We had remarked on the woodpecker in the neighbourhood and hoped to hear him in the morning.
I did not sleep much, and when I needed to get up at 3am our friend’s eyes were open. It felt like she had been watching me, even though she could not move her head in my direction.
It felt she had been watching over me, when I was there to watch over her.
We heard the woodpecker. And then, one week before her death, our friend explained to me how woodpeckers drum with their beak. She knew all the detail, all the technical stuff, which I cannot even remember now. There I was, getting a kind of biology lesson at 3am from a friend who was dying.
So surreal, yet so very real.
Then she asked for some morphine and slept until the morning.
When my friend died she gradually lost her voice, literally.
Her lungs could only cope with very little. Yet, our friend remained in charge. Even when on morphine with her life force ebbing away, she would momentarily open her eyes and be very present. Her eyes would do the talking and the smiling.
Even then, she was not speechless.
After her death, there was no immediate funeral. She had decided to donate her body to medical research and training.
I remained without a voice for several months. I was speech-less in a way that most others were not able to tell.
Life does carry on.
When I hear a woodpecker, we talk, my friend and I.
Gradually my voice returned, very slowly. And the first piece I wrote, after all those months, was this one here. It had to be about her; and sharing those last weeks with her, her family and wide circle of friends. And for the first anniversary of her death a few of us got together to grief and share memories of our friend.
I know she does not mind me writing all this. She was supportive of my need for self expression and had dedicated her herself in so many ways to creativity and the good of humanity.
I know she wants me and us all to regain our voice and carry on telling the truth and do the best we can while we can.
When my friend died, in those few weeks she taught me an invaluable lesson about living and dying. I needed to be speechless in grief to digest her lesson, to take it to heart and make whatever changes I feel necessary in my own life, while I can.
Being speechless with grief is a state as well as a process.
We need to put one foot before the other, gently, and hold on tight, because life will never be the same again.
If you are affected by grief then you might be interested in my grief collection of my other articles and podcasts on coping with grief.
You might also like this very personal post by Ilene Kaminsky about her experience of losing a friend: Integrative Hope: the prison of a diseased body