10/14/2014 12:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Do You Say Goodbye When He Doesn't Believe He's Dying?

How do you say goodbye to someone who doesn't believe he's dying?

You don't. You don't get to say goodbye. You don't get to say what you mean to say, like John Mayer tells us to do.

You don't. You don't get to hear them say that they are proud of you or that you are doing a good job.

You just don't. You don't get to have closure. You don't get to ask the questions. You don't get to learn the answers.

Because you don't get to start that conversation with someone who looks at you blankly, not understanding that you know it is the end, but they don't. You don't get to share those discussions because for whatever reason, they either don't know it or don't believe it or just won't admit it or still believe they can fight it.

So for that reason, you don't get to look them in the eyes, or hold their hand or tell them about the time that you first knew and how thankful you are for what you had or just be there with them in a way that means something.

You just don't.

We all think that at the endm in our final moments, when we know that our time in this life is short, we think there will be meaning in it all. That this life together, that it will all make some sort of sense. That it will be somehow beautiful. That there will be words spoken, regrets shared, advice given, and challenges made to lead full lives of love and laughter and other life coach cliché's.

But when the person doesn't know that he is dying.

Or when the person won't acknowledge that he is dying.

When the person just doesn't believe it could be true because someone has to be the 1% that don't.

Even when it is so admirable that the person wants to fight for more. Even though more of "this" is so unbearable for everyone else to see him suffer through.

You don't. You don't get to choose. You just don't.

My father-in-law is dying as we speak. My husband's father. My children's Pop.

And it is both amazing and devastating. Amazing that he was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer last August. Not this past August. But August 2013. Over a year ago. Amazing because he has not only beaten, but shattered, the odds of survival time. Survival time that is typically four months from diagnosis. Four months. We thought we'd be lucky to get to Thanksgiving. We thought we'd be lucky to be able to celebrate their 50th anniversary last fall. We thought we'd be very lucky to enjoy another Christmas together. And then we set our sights on maybe even getting to congratulate him on his 80th birthday in June.

So to get to celebrate all of these milestones and see him several times over the summer and even play a few games with him in September... those were just gifts.

But now. He is dying.

And it is devastating. Because he still seems to not understand that he's dying. It is almost frustrating that he still has hope. When he knows. I mean, he must know, right? That he is dying? He's a NASA scientist, for heaven's sake. He's an engineer. He's written books. Not just books. Volumes of books. He's taught. He's won awards for his achievements and inventions.

It's devastating because you can't tell someone goodbye when he doesn't believe he is dying.

He's a smart man, my father-in-law. A sweet, Sheldon-like, gentle soul.

He was always a good provider. Focused on work. No nonsense in his parenting. A good father.

I've only known him for the past 18 years. And in those years, he's been nothing but kind to me.

He avoids conflict and confrontations, which I appreciate. He does not like interruptions.

He is slightly awkward, but always sincere. And as brilliant as he probably is, he's always been a little helpless when it comes to cooking or figuring out simple machines like microwaves and coffee makers.

But over the years, I saw him come into his own when I watched him with his grandkids. I believe that he blossomed as a Pop to them. It was his role to play.

And they adore him.

My heart breaks for them, too. Because they won't get to say goodbye either.

Maybe that is OK for the9 and the 6-year-old. They don't need to know his suffering. They don't need to see him frail and weak and swollen, but oh-so-thin. That's not their Pop. That's not the Pop that plays the rough and tumble, made-up "Superman's Money" game with them. That's not the Pop that sits them in his lap for a rowdy game of "Aye Yi Sweetie Pie," throwing the kids around in ways that makes the Mommas worry about sprained necks. That's not the Pop that takes his Monopoly and Chess so seriously that it doesn't matter that you are his grandchild, he'll still call you a dummy for making a dumb move. That's not the Pop that takes them on walks around the block or through the woods. That's not the Pop that helped them do every science experiment that that little book from the Dollar Tree store had to offer. That's not their Pop.


Their Pop is the one hey saw last month, the last time they saw him. The Pop that was not feeling well that day. The Pop that slept most of the day, but still managed to get up and spend some time with them. The Pop that got down on the floor with them and their Dad. Sitting in a circle, three generations playing yet another, and what would turn out to be the last round of pickup sticks, always called 'flicker sticks' in this house. He was thin, tired, but was still just as competitive as always. I watched him. I watched him try so hard to ignore the pain and focus on their words. They had so many stories to tell him and they were talking at him so fast. And I watched him try so hard to take it all in, when I'm sure he could barely breathe, much less listen.

How do you say goodbye to someone who doesn't believe he's dying?

You don't. You do what they did. You collect your memories and try to hold them close.

In that moment, they played. A simple game. A simple children's game of pick up sticks. Three generations. Together.

That will have to be their goodbye. A last game of flicker sticks on the hallway rug.

Maybe. Maybe that's as meaningful a goodbye as anything else could be.