10/25/2014 02:44 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2014

When the Bad News Comes, Be There and Remain Faithful

This is the final part of a four-part series on death, and life, and decisions we face going forward into our final twenty or so years. (For the first three parts of the series, go to the Martha Nelson blog on The Huffington Post). As Baby Boomers we have led the way all of our lives. Now we will lead each other to the end of our days, like it or not. We need to talk about it, hard as it is, because talking together may help us to become enlightened as we head into the tunnel.

I remember a good friend saying that there was no way I could understand her life now. She had been diagnosed with cancer, was in a full-on aggressive treatment path, and the prognosis was not good.

"My entire world has changed," she said to me. "Every thought and every day is filled with sickness. I no longer inhabit your world, nor you, mine. I am in the universe of death and dying, and you are in the world of possibilities and life. We're on different planets."

Until I was in her shoes, I could never fully understand, she told me. And I knew she was right. A part of me had been relieved and, yes, quietly grateful, that I had not been on the receiving end of her life-threatening diagnosis. I know we all face death, particularly now that we are in the last one or two decades of our lives, but until the words of a horrible diagnosis are aimed at me, I tend to put it off ---- grateful that I seemed to have dodged the bullet for another day. Carry on and don't buy trouble, I tell myself.

In an attempt to embrace a compassionate spirit, I have entertained the idea, "What if it were me? How would I feel?" But compassion isn't developed that way, I've decided. More than that, I don't believe in thinking or speaking anything into the universe that I don't want to happen. We are what we think about, and what we think about expands, after all.

When illness strikes, I think the most important thing to us is that we are loving and supportive in the lives of those who are struggling, and even facing death. So what do we do?

Be mindful. Perhaps the first thing we can do for our friends and loved ones is to respect their right to privacy. Some friends will want to talk about it all, sharing every detail, while others will need days, or weeks, or even months, before they feel ready to discuss their hopes and fears.

Some may never share at all, which may lead you to think they don't care to have you in their lives. Try not to equate how much they share, or don't share, with how they feel about you. They aren't connected. Each person has their own way of handling the hard stuff --- and it has nothing to do with you specifically, and everything to do with them, specifically. So avoid the temptation to think they don't care to have you in their life just because they don't want to share the intimate details of their illness. Maybe they just don't want to share. And that's just fine.

Try to be mindful of where they are in the process of living and dying, so that they will find your presence a true comfort. "Just let me know when, and if, you want to talk about it," you might say. "I am here, always. Please know that, and call on me when you want a cup of tea, or a shoulder, a hug, or just someone to sit in the same space with you. I am here." Then wait for them to call. Having said that don't disappear from their life.

Stay in touch, gently. I remember reading a true story in a magazine, years ago, about a woman battling cancer. She survived the battle and wrote about what helped her through the long experience of treatment. She said a friendly acquaintance, a neighbor, let her know from the start that she was there for her, but she didn't intrude on her life. Instead, as the ill woman would gather up her mail, she would find a card from the neighbor in the mailbox on the first Monday of every month. Over time the woman said she looked forward to the card, anticipating its arrival.

This dependable steady contact, as she fought her cancer, meant a great deal to her, she wrote. The messages from her neighbor were not long, nor deep. She'd simply write that every day she was thinking of her, praying for her, and wishing she would enjoy the day's sunshine, or snowfall, or warm rain. It reminded the woman with cancer of the sweetness of familiar moments and that brought her joy.

Be faithful. Most of us are inclined to be very concerned when the news of a devastating illness is announced. It is shocking, horrible, and frightening. And we want to help. However, time has a way of nudging us back into our own lives. Often our good intentions to help get lost in the daily demands of our life. Besides, over time the news becomes part of the fabric of our lives and it loses its shocking, frightening nature. Instead, we ask for updates, and listen with a less frightened ear when we hear the latest news of treatment, and hopefully, recovery. We are very human, and our nature is to process, endure and keep going.

Finding a way to stay involved in the life of the temporarily or terminally ill, takes determination and effort. Maybe it's that weekly or monthly card in the mailbox. Or maybe it's a batch of homemade chicken noodle soup left in a basket on the doorstep with a fresh loaf of bread. Perhaps it's the phone call every couple of weeks where you ask not about progress or treatment, but rather, about what they're thinking about and how they feel about their day today. If your friends are readers, they might love to have you come and read to them for an hour or so. Or you may be the one to pick up their medications from the drug store, or be depended on to put out their garbage every Sunday night.

Whatever you decide you can do, I think the small acts of compassion can mean the most. What's most important is that we take the time to stop and think about how we can share our kindness with the ill and dying --- and to their spouses or partners who have the heavy job of care. Just think about what you can do, and then be faithful to that promise to yourself. Don't start something you are not fully prepared to do.

In the end it's about peace. The peace of those who eventually die, and of those they leave behind, is always determined, I think, by how we've lived our life. For me, nothing could be worse than to know I failed to respond to the need of another because I couldn't face it, didn't take the time to think about how to help, or had decided that they didn't care to have me in their life because they didn't call me up and ask for help.

I will always err on the side of stepping back out of respect for the privacy of others. And yet, I know that a card, a written note, a voicemail message, or a pan of hot fresh noodles swimming in butter are ways I can say, "I love you," without intruding on someone's struggle. You'll know what to do when your turn comes. As always, your intentions, your love and compassion, and your faithfulness will be your signature message. And that message is a medicine like no other.

Martha Nelson is an award-winning journalist and a former educator, nonprofit executive, chef, and musician. Her first novel, Black Chokeberry, was published in April 2012 and is available on, or at She currently is at work on a collection of short, and short-short stories, a children's series about the adventures of Lulu, Bart, and Charlie, her beloved dogs, and a new novel.