Talking Through the Tears:
Talking about dying is one of the most difficult conversations to start. But there is some evidence that people who have these
conversations are more likely to have better quality of life when they are near death, said Sue Wintermeyer-Pingel, the University
of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center's Grief and Loss Program manager. Caregivers may also fare better.
How to start a conversation about dying, page 2
"Everyone always hopes for the best outcome, but for some, the focus of treatment may change from cure to care," Wintermeyer-Pingel said. "It's important to start talking. It's the only way to fully understand a patient's desires and priorities for care."
Although some people may have trouble broaching the subject of death, some patients want to talk about it more than their family and friends may realize, said Susan Urba, M.D., professor of internal medicine in the U-M Division of Hematology/Oncology. Everyone feels differently about what he or she wants to talk about and how much; the key, though, is to bring it up so that you know where a person stands.
Often people worry that they can't talk about death without giving up hope.
"Many people hope for a long life, but if a cure is not possible, then hope shifts to a peaceful and pain-free death," Urba said. "We all know we're going to die, but our first thought is always going to be 'How can we fight this?' It would be imprudent and unrealistic if all we did was push to extend life. The goal becomes, 'How can we make this as best as possible for the patient?'"
As Bob's cancer progressed, he made plans. He made sure Adriana knew where the keys and titles to all of his 13 cars were. A consummate tinkerer whose trade was making models for Ford Motor Co., Bob also told Adriana who to call for help with various chores around the house.
The family continued to work with Todd Hochberg, a Chicago-area photographer who bases his work around documenting the lives of people who are dying. Working in collaboration with Wintermeyer-Pingel and Donna Murphy, the Cancer Center's director of Complementary Therapies, Hochberg spent hours with the Redicks before and after Bob's death. The project was funded by donations to the Cancer Center's Patient & Family Support Services program.
The Cancer Center offers an array of complementary therapies to help patients work through their story. Art therapy, creative writing and music therapy are just a few services that can help patients develop legacy work, Murphy said.
Hochberg helped the family focus its energy on preserving the important stories, Adriana said, adding that it was difficult to take time to step back from the chaos of everyday life to reflect.
And for patients, Hochberg said, taking that time to reflect can help put their lives into perspective.
"It's not just about what you leave the family," Hochberg said, "but about who you are."