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YoBob's avatar

What the heck do you say to a friend dying of cancer?

Asked by YoBob (12783 points ) July 14th, 2011

I got a call last night from the mother of one of my oldest friends. To be blunt, he has terminal cancer and is not expected to be with us much longer.

We were best friends since elementary school, we were best men at each others weddings, etc… Several years back he moved across the country and neither of us has been very good at keeping in touch.

So… out of the blue I get a call from his mom saying that “his systems are shutting down” and he wanted to talk to me. I called last night but got voice mail. I will call again this morning but am at a total loss for what to say.

Suggestions?

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29 Answers

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Just tell him you realize this sucks and ask what he’d like to talk about.

john65pennington's avatar

If you live close to your friend, don’t call him…...GO.

Most people only have one good friend in their life and this person is yours.

Tell him how you feel. Tell him that you will see him in heaven and you two will talk over all the good times you two had together, on earth.

He will accept this.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

I’m sorry about your friend.
I would tell him that you are sorry and let him lead the conversation.
If he doesn’t,I would maybe talk about a few things you used to do together.

janbb's avatar

(He said the friend lives across the country.) You could start with, “I was so sorry to hear about your illness, you mean so much to me. How are you feeling?” and then let him talk and follow his lead.

janbb's avatar

@john65pennington We’ve had this discussion before and I don’t want to derail a thread but I really don’t think you should assume that everyone believes in an afterlife and heaven. Great comfort for those who do, not so much for those who don’t. My mother-in-law died recently and people expressed condolences and were comforting. Nobody mentioned heaven..

Leanne1986's avatar

I am really sorry to hear this. I found out a couple of days ago that my Grandmother has lung cancer, it is shit news to hear. Is there anyway that you can physically go and see your friend rather than have a conversation over the phone? I often find that phone conversations are much more difficult than a conversation face to face.

poisonedantidote's avatar

If it’s possible for you to do so, go pay him a visit. As for what to say, what can you say? Just give him some company, and if you can’t get there, keep calling.

YoBob's avatar

@janbb – I appreciate what you are saying. In this instance, however, unless he has had a major change of opinion recently, the person in question is rather devout in his belief in an afterlife and I don’t think that I will spend any time debating that topic with him.

Cruiser's avatar

Ask him if there is something you can do for him now and after he passes. These last words will comfort him knowing you will be there for him with these requests.

Hibernate's avatar

You tell him/her you were glad you two were friends and had opportunities to spend time together .

LuckyGuy's avatar

While you are visiting (and are alone) in addition to the other suggestions above, ask if there is anything he wants thrown out, destroyed, or buried quietly – no questions asked.

CWOTUS's avatar

Fuck Heaven, to be somewhat more blunt than @janbb. I prefer to do my living – and only expect to do any living or have any consciousness – on Earth.

Be open and honest with your friend. It’s more than likely that he has already come to grips with things and doesn’t need pity or sympathy. Tell him truly, “I don’t know what to say. The news hit me like a ton of bricks.”

You might ask about his wife and family, but don’t be too glib about promising to “look after” anyone; don’t let your emotion or your own feelings of loss and inadequacy have you make promises that you can’t keep – you’ll feel worse about that for the rest of your life. Do be prepared to follow through on any commitment that you make, whether it’s to eulogize him, hold a memorial service, execute his estate, or whatever he might ask for and you agree to.

Mostly, just listen.

YoBob's avatar

@worriedguy – An excellent suggestion. It brings to mind an old quote from an unknown source.

“A friend will help you hide. A true friend will help you hide a body…”

LuckyGuy's avatar

@YoBob Yep. Even if the answer is “No” he will appreciate the intimate thought.

The stuff I want destroyed is in the basement next to the paint cans. Agreed?

picante's avatar

I’m sorry for the imminent loss of your friend, YoBob. Great suggestions above—be supportive and caring and maybe share some memories from the many times you’ve spent together. A friend of mine since elementary school and I touch base on occasion, and we always laugh at a funny little memory about something.

ZEPHYRA's avatar

Tell him you are still there despite the distance and then say that you are there just to listen, simply listen and be that shoulder to cry on. Don’t say too much, the least said the better.

mazingerz88's avatar

If he is up to it, reminisce about the good memories as mentioned above. Sorry to hear about your friend.

SpatzieLover's avatar

Just talk. Be open to bringing up the best of times and reminiscing for as long as his health allows him to. His mom must’ve known he’d want a call from you, or she wouldn’t have reached out.

If you can, Skype.

janbb's avatar

@YoBob Just to clarify what I said, I have no problem with people talking about heaven if they have the desire and know the person is a believer; I would just never assume that they were or want it spoken of to me.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

Ask him, or whoever answers the phone, if this is a good time to talk. Let him know that you are thankful that his mother called on his behalf. Ask him about the details and how is he doing.

Talk about experiences the two of you shared. Ask him if there is anything that you can do, such as contact another friend.

Prepare yourself to handle his emotions, be it anger, tears, or anything else. Your friend may be comfortable enough with you to do so, rather than with his family members. Prepare for your own potential emotions as well.

Be thankful that you have the opportunity to get in touch with him before he dies. Not all people do. My heart goes out to you.

YoBob's avatar

@janbb – I’m totally with you. Even though I have a fervent belief in a spiritual component to our being (but don’t necessairly buy into the whole passing into paradise thing), I know I would be annoyed if somebody tried to push their preferred religious dogma on me during what is likely to be our last conversation.

OTOH, I would hope I would be wise enough to understand that they probably have the best of intentions and gracious enough to let it slide.

janbb's avatar

@YoBob Yes – agree.

YoBob's avatar

Just want to say thank you all for your excellent answers!

My wife got a call from one of the “folks” to let me know that the reason he is not answering his phone is because he is having problems talking at the moment (acid reflux tearing up his throat). He continues to fight on and has been approved for an experimental treatment that has shown some promise.

As a side note, he is one of the strongest willed people I have ever known, and believe me that is saying something!

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Tough situation. I’d say something like ‘Hey…I can’t believe that the one thing making us get in touch again is this awful news. I was so shocked when I heard and am so upset because I always felt we were so close. You mean a lot to me, I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I just want to know how I can be there for you.’

mrrich724's avatar

You don’t have to say anything. Just your presence and thoughts are enough. I don’t think someone who has been giving their expiration date is thinking “my happiness now depends on what you say.”

Just be there. Let them know you are there. That’s it! Ask them if they need anything. A man was given weeks to live in a hospital. The doctor said no smoking or drinking (which was ABSURD considering there was 0% chance of survival at that point), so my aunt asked the guy what he wanted. He asked for a bottle of Johnny Walker and he got it! He was happier for it.

john65pennington's avatar

janbb, I guess that’s the difference between christians and non-christians.
We all have our beliefs…as different as they may be.

Bellatrix's avatar

@YoBob I am sorry about your friend’s illness, but glad you have the opportunity to connect with him. You must mean a lot to him and obviously, he to you. I am sure you will both find the way to say what you need to say. If you can, I hope you can go and visit him in person. If not, I am sure just being able to hear your voice and speak to you will bring him comfort.

Meego's avatar

First of all, @YoBob I’m very sorry. I think you should do something memorable. Write a note and/or spend as much time as you can with your friend. I wrote a letter to my father and talked about things like his strength and to hold on as long as could but no longer and that I was ok if he could not hang on. I also told him what he meant to me, anything that is special will be memorable to your friend, out of norm things probably will be very memorable.

@janbb
That was totally unfair. Only the person posting this would know what their friend believes in and if it doesn’t apply they would not think to use the suggestion.
OTOH I am a firm believer there is an afterlife.
Before my husband passed we always used to tap on the wall 3 times if we were in different rooms as a gesture to say I love you. 3 days after his funeral I was lying in bed and I heard 3 bangs which freaked me and the dogs out.

The bangs sounded like some one was on my wooden front porch knocking there boots off. I got up and no one was there. The bangs really sounded like they encompassed the entire house I never heard anything like that before and I never heard it again.
I also have aura photos of my husband after he passed.

janbb's avatar

@Meego Did you not see my further explanations of what I said? I think I made it clear that if you knew the person was a believer it would be fine to say if you wanted but I would not assume if I didn’t know. And I was originally responding to johnpennington’s assumption of a belief.

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