Never before had I ever walked side by side, day by day, minute by minute, with someone during their final journey in life.
Now, I have.
Seemingly out of nowhere, my good friend John fell ill and was shockingly diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. At first he didn’t believe it, because he always associated liver cancer with someone who drank alcohol in excess, and he had never touched a drink in his life. Nevertheless, it was true. He passed away six weeks later.
Six years ago, I moved into an apartment building and met John on my very first day there. Our chats in the foyer lead to a friendship and when COVID arrived, we became pandemic buddies who shopped together, booked our vaccines together, played card games and watched a lot of movies.
John was close to his three adult children and his sister, but not wanting to bother them when he felt sick, he asked me to drive him to the hospital. I was not allowed in due to COVID restrictions and sadly, he received the serious news all by himself.
Overwhelmed, he convinced the medical staff to allow me in, where I struggled with my own emotions of fear, shock, devastation, and confusion. While at the hospital together, John asked me if I would help him get through this. Paralyzed with sadness, to be honest, a part of me wanted to just run away from the horror of it all, but of course, I would never do that.
Immediately, I committed myself to staying the course. Thinking I would have a minor role, my biggest hope was that I could help him be at peace in some small way during his last days. Little did I know that my small role would turn into so much more.
Here is what happened and what I learned from this experience.
Root yourself in prayer
First and foremost, I knew I would only find the strength to assist John through prayer. I reached out to family, friends, my church, and a nearby Precious Blood Monastery for prayers. Prayer gave me strength as I coped with my sadness and devastation at losing my friend, and there was enormous comfort in knowing that when I was often overwhelmed, others were praying as well.
Prepare for new responsibilities
John’s family was very involved as well, but since I lived on the same floor as him, it was very easy for me to check in often, ensuring he had everything, especially his medications. Eventually, he started relying on me to make sure his prescriptions were filled, and that he took his pills at the required times.
I was extremely nervous about taking on this huge responsibility and was even more terrified when he asked me for additional medical support. I learned I could do things I would never have thought possible, and the trust in John’s eyes kept me going and empowered me to learn and ask questions. John put me on all contact lists with doctors, nurses, and anyone in a position of authority so medical professionals could talk to me directly when I had concerns about his health.
Prayer helped me realize how important it was to remain quiet, to listen, and observe. I actually felt a sense of peace flow through me that enabled me to remain calm, allowing John the opportunity to talk about what was on his mind.
I was well aware that while I was rooted in the land of the living, John was on a challenging journey, fully knowing he didn’t have much time left. While I noticed he became less agitated when he had a listening ear, I discovered practical issues were first on his mind. When he said he had no will, I handed him a paper and pen and he wrote out his wishes. I was able to then give this to his family.
After John’s practical issues were sorted out, he expressed a great desire to make peace with his life. One day, right in the middle of talking about something else, he stopped and said he longed for spiritual guidance and wanted to meet with a minister. I was happy to arrange this visit and when the minister arrived, John asked me to stay. I witnessed firsthand how much happiness this brought him and the joy that enveloped his heart after their first meeting. They continued to gather right up until the end.
John also wished to make amends with a few people, so I helped him arrange meetings with them. Once again I saw the joy he felt and the peace that settled over him after talking with each person. It hit home the importance of making sure your loved ones know how much you care before it’s too late.
Allow space for complex emotions
Assisting someone in their final journey is, without a doubt, an extremely emotional time. Family and friends were also assisting John. They were invaluable, providing meals and taking on chores like laundry and cleaning.
As time went on, everyone struggled to cope with their feelings. People became exhausted, stressed, and occasionally tempers flared. Keeping focused on John’s trusting eyes, prayer guided me through this, helping me know when to speak up or when to walk away and to remain centered on his needs. I didn’t always get it right, but I wanted to be there with a clear and untroubled heart, helping him find the peace he craved.
Throughout the experience, I learned to be honest about my own feelings. Initially, I was trying to be strong and often kept my sadness to myself. But my favorite moments were actually when we sat late into the night sharing our thoughts. All walls were down, and total honesty grew between us, even more than before. John was forthright about how wonderful our friendship had been.
One night, he said he knew I was trying to be strong for him, but he wanted to know my real feelings. I spoke my truth, and those moments when we wept together after sharing deeply seemed to bring much healing to the both of us.
I realized I would be useless if I got sick or over-exhausted during this journey. In order to give my best to John, I tried hard to squeeze in some personal quiet time, eat healthy, rest, and take care of myself. This was hard to do, and often I felt guilty, but I knew it was important to John’s well-being, as well as my own.
A few weeks later, John passed away peacefully. The last words he spoke to me before slipping into a coma were, “Are you happy?” I replied, “Yes, because I am with you. Are you happy?” He smiled and said, “Yes.” That moment will remain forever imprinted on my heart. I had longed for him to have peace and on that day his words and smiles signaled a serenity that was sincere as well as profound.
I consider it to be a complete honor and a privilege to have traveled along with John during this time. I also adopted his cat, Panda, who is a sweet, gentle, reminder of the beautiful friendship I had with John.
Through all the highs, lows, worries, stress, and the many tears, I experienced God’s love at every step, guiding, calming, and assisting me. It was an experience I will never forget.