Not long ago a friend’s father past away after a long, and steadily declining battle with Alzheimer’s. After offering my sympathy and a shoulder, I realized that, no matter how bad I felt about my friend’s loss, I would probably never really understand what he and his family went through, until I had a similar loss.
Unfortunately, not too long after my friend’s father’s death, I came to be able to sympathize with him sooner than I would have wanted. In mid-December we learned that my husband Mac’s father, Ray, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The news was devastating to all of Ray’s family and friends. We could not believe, and still can’t, that this gregarious, vibrant man will not be with us for much longer.
After the initial shock, the first thing Mac and I had to deal with was what and how much to tell our two children since both kids are extremely close to Grandpa. We decided to tell them Grandpa had cancer and let them ask any questions they needed answered. Both wanted to know if he was going to die, and we answered honestly, that yes he was. But when they asked separately when grandpa would die, we told our nine year-old daughter no one was really sure, and that the doctors would do everything they could to treat him so he could be with us as long as possible. When our 15-year-old son asked, we felt he was more mature and could deal with the one-year prognosis the doctors had given.
This is an issue that every family must deal with individually. Children at different ages can deal with varying degrees of information. And information and knowledge can also be a valuable tool for adults in dealing with the dying and death of a loved one.
Being a writer, I handled my father-in-law’s diagnosis the way writers approached most situations. I did research. I researched the disease; I researched current treatments, new treatments and radical treatments. I even researched his hospital and doctor! I gathered all the data and statistics I could and presented them to my husband. But the one thing I couldn’t research was how my husband would deal with losing his father. Here was something I couldn’t find statistics and case studies on.
There is no black and white, right or wrong way to grieve. My friend advised giving him “space” and letting him come to terms with his father’s illness in his own way. He told me in time, as Mac accepts his father’s mortality; he will open up and be able to talk more freely about his feelings. I’m doing this, but have also looked for alternative resources for him to turn to in case he needs a more objective (and less emotional) point of view than mine. I’ve contacted our local hospitals and nursing homes for the names of support groups in the area. The American Cancer Society has chapters in nearly every big city, and I found massive amounts of information on-line at a multitude of web sites. Another great coping method is prayer. Our family, although a religiously mixed one, (my husband is Jewish and I am Catholic), has a great deal of faith that God will help us all through this trying time. Our local clergy members have been a source of comfort in terms of spiritual guidance. Although they can’t answer medical questions, they are trained in grief counseling and offer a tremendous amount of emotional support. One of our local pastors was extremely helpful in suggesting local resources in the way of groups and individuals with experience in advising cancer patients and their families. He is the one who told me to call the American Cancer Society and also suggested getting in touch with Hospice. Now, a lot of people think Hospice is only involved in the actually dying process. This is not true.
Hospice provides resources and information for family members in the care of terminally ill people. They also offer counseling services for patients and family members as well as bereavement and support groups. Hospice will also direct you to other resources in your area. Although my husband and his mother feel our family isn’t at a stage where we need Hospice’s help yet, its good to know what is available when the time comes. Eventually, the time will come, and hopefully we’ll be ready. And when friends offer their sympathy and a shoulder, and say they know how we feel, I’ll pray they never really do.