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 that she get some therapy to deal with her issues and the anger she harbors, but she always refused. If her past wasn’t enough to haunt her, there is the matter of who will adopt her 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 without adding any of your baggage. The caretaker 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 ourselves 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 be truly profound.