How to be a friend to someone who is dying

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By Salma Pantin-Redhead

Before you go any further, understand that my qualifications for writing this are covered in the title. I am not a medical professional, I am not a death doula, I am not a spiritual guide, I am not a writer. I am simply a friend — a friend of someone who is no longer dying, because well, she’s dead.

Don’t expect euphemisms, heartwarming imagery, and gentle ushering through the unpleasant; I probably should have led with that. The only reason I am writing this is that my friend asked me to. Not from the other side, mind you — while she was alive. So if you don’t mind straight-up, honest, raw, true, painful, loving, and in a very odd way extraordinarily beautiful and sacred, walk with me.

“I’ll walk with you.” That’s what I told her when she knew the end was close.
“I’m scared,” she told me.
“It will be okay,” I reassured her, “I’ll walk with you so well that when you have to cross without me you won’t be scared anymore.”
Sounds nice, right? Turns out it was rubbish.

I didn’t keep my promise. Walk with her, I did. But she was scared, till the very end, and I kicked myself for making her a promise that I could not keep.

I didn’t know better, but I should have. People should know better. That was my friend’s point. We don’t want to engage in conversations about death. We have made obscure the only thing that is a guarantee in life. Dying may be natural, but wanting to live? That is the human condition. So, we cover plain talk about death with platitudes and choose to communicate it in the world of messages, ducking behind emojis.

Women share their birth experiences without hesitation, sometimes much too much, as far as I’m concerned. Why is it we can talk so freely about the pangs of birth but not the spasms of death? Clearly, we haven’t truly internalised the “it’s not the end but the beginning of a new life” spiel. The language of death is one of deep sighs and meaningful looks. We whisper its stories in dark corners so as not to scare others or offend sensibilities.

As for the people who actually talk about how they plan to die, they are usually, in fact, not dying. The dying, at least the ones I’ve known, they just want to live. My friend wanted to live. She was days away from her 56th birthday – too young to die. She was happily married (really, I am not kidding you) for 33 years. She had a good life and was not ready to let it go. “I’m not ready to be an ancestor,” she would say.

She suffered. From the first surgery to a painful end – yes, I said it — she never knew what it was to be well again. She would often share with me her wish of having just a few days of feeling normal. It was one she would never get.

And she was scared. She didn’t want to be; she called on her faith; she called on her dead mother; she called on the priest. We tried to pray it away, sing it away, laugh it away, but Fear would simply move to another corner of the room, ready to sidle up to her at any moment.

And yet, as awful as all of that may sound, it wasn’t really. It was hard, but not horrible. We followed her lead. We kept it real, and in so doing, we were able to face it. We didn’t whitewash the anger, pain, or fear; instead, we eyeballed it. In having a safe space to give voice to these ugly companions of Death, we were able to honour her courage and strength, making her weakness powerful, making the ugly, sacred.

It wasn’t pretty. In her last hours, she groaned in pain. She lifted her arms, commending her spirit into the hands of God, imploring Him to release her from it. As much as I wanted to walk with her, at that point I was an outsider, no more than a witness to her journey. But witness, I would. I was determined to stay with her to the bitter end, whether she knew it or not, swallowing the boulder of guilt of reneging on my promise.

Then, in the middle of it all, a huge smile spread across her face, and her eyes lit up. “I can see outside,” she said, “the garden is so beautiful. My word!” She stretched out her hands as if to grasp.

“We are here with you,” I told her. “You are not alone.” (I was trying real hard to keep my promise.) With another broad grin, she looked beyond me and said, with what felt like a hint of mischief, “Somebody else is here.” Talk about feeling redundant.

Now, this would be the perfect place for her to have “breathed her last” and “entered into the House of God,” but nope, that’s not what happened. Anticlimactic, to say the least. The doctor arrived and was able to ease her pain, which meant she became loopy and could no longer communicate as before. Her laboured breathing lasted another couple of hours until, at last, it stopped — and in that moment, the world became poorer, and it didn’t even know.

Yet, I was richer. To the end, an extraordinary teacher, Patrice taught me that death is a deeply personal experience. And she taught me how to be a friend to someone who is dying. She said, “Just be.”

There you go, Patrice. I told them. I thought I was walking with you, but all along, it was you walking with me.

Patrice Cox-Neaves was a university-level music lecturer from Trinidad and Tobago, who passed away from cancer on October 18, 2023. Salma Pantin-Redhead is her longtime friend and a fellow educator who, upon learning that Cox-Neaves was terminal, began writing Facebook posts with her on how to be a friend to someone who is dying.

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