By Pieter Hintjens
Software developer Pieter Hintjens outlines his rules for talking to someone who is dying, as he faces up to his own diagnosis of terminal cancer
Software developer Pieter Hintjens has been diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 53. He will be opting to end his own suffering through euthanasia, which has been legal in Belgium since 2002. He has three children, aged twelve, nine and five. In a final article on his website, he has outlined a protocol for dying, including these thoughts on how to have a conversation with someone you know is going to die.
It can be horribly awkward to talk to a dying person (let’s say “Bob”). Here are the main things the other person (let’s say “Alice”) should not say to Bob:
- “Hang in there! You must have hope, you must fight!” It’s safe to assume that Bob is fighting as hard as possible. And if not, that’s entirely Bob’s choice.
- “This is so tragic, I’m so sad, please don’t die!” Which my daughter said to me one time. I explained softly that you cannot argue with facts. Death is not an opinion. Being angry or sad at facts is a waste of time.
- “You can beat this! You never know!” Which is Alice expressing her hope. False hope is not a medicine. A good chemotherapy drug, or a relaxing painkiller, that’smedicine.
- “There’s this alternative cure people are talking about,” Which gets the ban hammer from me, and happily I only got a few of those. Even if there was a miracle cure, the cost and stress (to others) of seeking it is such a selfish and disproportionate act. With, as we know, lottery-style chances of success. We live, we die.
- “Read this chapter in the Bible, it’ll help you.” Which is both rude and offensive, as well as being clumsy and arrogant. If Bob wants religious advice he’ll speak to his priest. And if not, just do not go there. It’s another ban hammer offence.
- Engage in slow questioning. This is passive-predatory, asking Bob to respond over and over to small, silly things like “did I wake you?” Bob is unlikely to be a mood for idle chitchat. He either wants people close to him, physically, or interesting stuff.
Above all, do not call and then cry on the phone. If you feel weepy, cut the phone, wait ten minutes, then call back. Tears are fine, yet for Bob, the threat of self-pity looms darker than anything. I’ve learned to master my emotions yet most Bobs will be vulnerable.
- Stories of old adventures they had together. Remember that time? Oh boy, yes I do… it was awesome!
- Clinical details. Bob, stuck in his bed, is probably obsessed by the rituals of care, the staff, the medicines, and above all, his disease. I’ll come to Bob’s duty to share, in a second.
- Helping Bob with technical details. Sorting out a life is complex and needs many hands and minds.
- “I bought your book,” assuming Bob is an author like me. It may be flattery, or sincere, either way it’ll make Bob smile.
Above all, express no emotions except happiness, and don’t give Bob new things to deal with.
It’s not all Alice’s work. Bob too has obligations under this protocol. They are, at least:
- Be happy. This may sound trite yet it’s essential. If you are going to be gloomy and depressed, Alice will be miserable every time she talks to you.
- Obviously, put your affairs in order. I’ve been expecting death for years now, so had been making myself disposable wherever I could. For family, that is not possible. For work, yes.
- Remove all stress and cost that you can. For example Belgium permits euthanasia. I’ve already asked my doctors to prepare for that. (Not yet!, when it’s time…) I’ve asked people to come say goodbye before I die, not after. No funeral. I’ll give my remains to the university here, if they want them.
- Be realistic. Hope is not medicine, as I explained. If you are going to negotiate with your doctors, let it be pragmatic and in everyone’s interests. I’ve told mine they can try whatever experimental chemotherapy they wish to. It’s data for them, and the least I can do for a system that’s given me five+ years of extra life.
- Assume the brutal worst. When my oncologist saw my scan she immediately called me and told me, in her opinion, it was cancer. In both lungs, all over the place. I put the phone down, and told the children. The next day I told their schools to expect the worst, then my lawyer, then my notary. Ten days later the biopsies confirmed it. That gave us ten more days of grieving and time to prepare.
- Be honest and transparent with others. It takes time to grieve and it is far easier to process Bob’s death when you can talk about it with Bob.
There is no shame in dying, it is not a failure.
Complete Article HERE!