Don’t Say “I Know How You Feel”

I lost my father to cancer in 1995 – he was in his mid-fifties, I was in my early twenties. Sometimes I’m shocked out how much time has gone by.

There are days when it feels like only yesterday I was saying goodbye to him as he lay unresponsive on his hospital bed. I like to think he could still hear us and feel us beside him in those final hours.

I learned a lot about myself, people and life during those few months. Sadly for us but a blessing for Dad, his time was brief, from diagnosis to his passing. It felt like only moments from the time we heard the news to all of a sudden he was just gone. We had ‘time to say goodbye’ but not the time to figure out how to say it. We did our best.

I’m still surprised at how internally angry I was about Day dying – I don’t recall directly at what. Just the unfairness of life I guess.

I remember wanting to dodge well-wishers on the street, and there were many as we grew up in a small town. The vehement anger I felt when they said “I know how you feel’. The amount of times in my head I wanted to punch them for saying that. How on earth could they know? Was my Dad their Dad too? Thankfully I never did.

If you say one thing to someone dealing with the terminal illness of a loved one – it’s never that. I could see even within my own family how it was different for all of us.

Some of us could talk about what was happening, others couldn’t. My brother dropped pretty much everything to run Dad’s business. My sister ran the house. I helped Mum care for Dad at home until those final few days when he went into hospital.

Tell them you’re sorry to hear the news, ask directly if there’s anything you can do to help. Offer practical support – send a home cooked meal over, help with cleaning the house, look after the children. Often its the actions that show you care – in this case actions can speak a thousand words.

The opposite is true once the loved one has gone. Talking is important but it’s as if it’s a taboo to talk about someone once they’ve died.

We need to remember that those who are grieving are going through a process which does not stop with the passing of a loved one.

I lived away from home at the time we lost Dad and I wished I had someone to chat with – even if just about some of my memories of him. But I didn’t because I didn’t want to bring anyone down… and nobody asked.

I make a point these days of bringing up loved ones lost – especially those recently lost – with friends. We talk and laugh… and sometimes they might have a small cry. But they’ve all thanked me for being able to talk about their loved one. They miss them and it helps them to talk about it, it’s comforting for them to know they’re not the only ones thinking of the person that is no longer with us. That we understand they are still coming to terms with their loss.

So if there’s a nugget I can offer to someone who is trying to care for a friend going through this journey – be there quietly before; and be there afterwards.

Especially weeks and months after, when your friend has to pick up the pieces of their life and move on without that special someone. Send them a card, or flowers, or take them for a coffee. They’ll still need you.

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