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5 Truths the Dying Want to Tell the Living

By Ann Marie Mershon January 29, 2020 Mindset

I’m mourning my beloved sixth grade teacher, Mr. Ryshavy. In 1960, he was a young, creative, and caring instructor, and every single member of our class adored him. I think he loved each one of us as well.

I relish the memory of covering our classroom walls with elaborate historical timelines, a project we immersed ourselves in for weeks.

Mr. Ryshavy recently died of pancreatic cancer, and though I haven’t seen him in 59 years, we’ve been in touch. I feel this loss keenly. I’m thankful that Mr. Ryshavy bequeathed me – all of us – a valuable gift: advice to the living.

Eddie Ryshavy was an occasional writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and his final article is one I want to share with you – well, at least the meat of it. In it he says, “Metaphorical lightning strikes everyone, but this bolt struck me. I’m not quite the hero about it, and don’t ask me to be.”

Naturally, Mr. Ryshavy was shocked when he first learnt that he had terminal cancer. As anyone, he went through a journey of acceptance before he shared the news with his family. There’s no question that it’s difficult to face the end of life, and even harder when you’re not ready.

For those of us who are still living, Mr. Ryshavy shared advice to help us deal with friends and family who are facing death. As we age, we interact with dying friends and family more often, and his suggestions offer us compassionate ways to keep these difficult connections.

He observed: “You realize quickly that you are now different from everyone around you. You have no future. Your worldview changes dramatically.”

Here are his 5 most prominent, worth thinking through tips:

Tales of Others’ Good Fortune Aren’t Helpful

Don’t tell a dying person about other people’s success fighting death. The dying don’t want to hear “about this friend of a distant cousin who had exactly what I do and died of a lightning strike on the last mile of a marathon at 103.” Why complicate the journey with empty tales and false hopes?

The Situation Is Far Worse for Them

Of course you feel bad for your dying friend, but try to understand that they feel bad about their situation, too – far more than you do.

Ryshavy warns, “Don’t make me spend the next 20 minutes helping you feel good… Make it quick and get on with behaving normally.” Time is precious for the dying, so spend it well.

Sometimes Bravery Isn’t Enough to Keep a Smile

Please understand that a dying person has bad days, lots of them, and may have a hard time playing the hero. “I can tell you playing the part occasionally gets tiresome.”

Respect that and give your friend the space he or she needs when they’re not up to being their cheerful old selves – or even when they don’t want your company.

Don’t Take Responsibility for the Next Step

The afterlife is a personal thing, not really your business. Ryshavy puts it in an amusing light, but his point is clear:

“Some feel compelled to make sure they have done everything they can to ease the journey into eternity. They sit down, hold both my hands, lock eyes, assume the countenance of longtime hemorrhoid suffer and grill me about their version of redemption. They then use their close association with the Almighty to broker a good plea bargain on my behalf.” Please don’t.

Aim for Ordinary and Pleasant

Do your best to make your interactions with a dying friend as normal as you can. Continue your relationship as it’s always been, and treasure your limited time together. Humor has great strength for healing, so employ it if you can.

May you not have to face this dilemma often, but when you do, please approach it with warmth, understanding, and most importantly, good humor. Remember the Golden Rule – What would you want in your last months, weeks, or days?

How do you behave when approaching a person suffering from a terminal illness? What advice do you have for people who have a friend in that situation? Please share your best tips with our community.

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The Author

A retired English teacher, Ann Marie Mershon lives on a lake in northern Minnesota with her husband, Jerry, and their two dogs. She’s published three books as well as numerous articles and columns. You can read about her years of teaching in Istanbul on her blog

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