Ask Abdi: How Can I Help Someone Die In Peace?

Question: A dear family member has been fighting a very aggressive cancer for several years and has just been told she has a few months to live, possibly less.

I think this illness is directly related to her being the black sheep in her family. From the time she was born she never got the respect or love that her siblings received. Sadly, I heard close family members talk about how not so lovable she was even from such a young age. So imagine the crap this poor kid has faced all her life.

Even since this deadly diagnosis, she barely got the love and attention she’s always been so desperate for. Over the years, pre and post cancer, I tried to suggest she get some therapy to deal with the anger she harbors and with her issues, but she always refused. If her past wasn’t enough to haunt her, there is the matter of who will adopt here children after she passes. I can’t imagine how that will go.

So here we are, with barely any time to scratch the surface of her neglected emotional pain. How can she possibly die in peace?!

Answer: I am really sorry to read this. So painful and brutal.

Of course the answer is that you are helpless in regards to her healing her past. Cancer or no cancer, people have to face their wounded past out of their own accord. You have to keep your feelings in check. Good on you for trying to tell her to get therapy. That is as far as you could have gone. The work is hers. Your job as it is with any dying person is to get your shit out of the way. Hold space for her. Let her go through what she needs to go through. Allow her to deal with her exit with out adding any of your baggage. The care taker and control freak in you needs to stay out. Of course you are not going to be able to undo decades of injury to her in a matter of months. Feel your own grief around that.

There is something that you can do to be of assistance. Allow the lovely caring part of you to be present. In our culture we do not add much emphasis to that since we are doers. We want to get in and fix things since we can not tolerate the anxiety within our own selves that we see in another. Holding space is foreign to us, we do not trust the invisible. In this part of someone’s journey, the exit, holding space is profound medicine. Many times what I witness with terminal illness is the family grieving while the person is still alive. This does not give the dying enough breathing room on their way out. Celebrate her life with her. Even one present person in the room that does not project, judge or act out of their own unconscious fear around death and dying can truly profound.