How to talk to a dying friend

This post is dedicated to my dear friend David, who passed away in Toronto on June 3, 2012

All the public speaking training and presentation training in the world does not prepare you for talking to a dying friend; at times like that you just have to find what you hope is going to work and use it.

I did my best

We got the call about 5pm on Sunday, June 3. David, my sister-in-law’s life partner, who had been unconscious for more than a week, was about to be taken off life support. An hour later I entered his room at the Toronto General Hospital to support her but I ended up doing my best to support both of them during a very difficult time.

That voice . . .

David had always been a slight man but the voice that had come out of that 135-pound frame had commanded attention. He’d had the voice I’d always wanted and the kind of projection that I encourage my public speaking workshop participants to develop. He’d have been a natural for radio but, interestingly, although his first job was with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, he never appeared on air, preferring the sales area, and he continued to work in sales with many companies throughout his 50-year career.

Silent

It was strange to see him lying there, connected to machines and silent. Because David was never silent. He l-o-o-o-ved (that’s the way he liked to pronounce it) to boom that voice at whomever was present and regale them with stories about the years he spent in New York, about his family members’ achievements and, of course, about his beloved Toronto Blue Jays.

Something he never said

But there was something he never told those people. No one knew that David had overcome a very serious stammer by using a very simple technique that works magic. He had discovered that if he paused before he spoke he could control his stammer.

No one heard

It was the very same technique that I teach in my public speaking training sessions to help speakers recover when they stumble during a presentation. He had perfected this technique to a point where no one heard the pauses and, during the rare occasions when the stammer slipped in, he was able to recover within a second or two.

Now he was silent

But now he was silent, a tube pushing air into his lungs, monitors graphing his bodily functions. We agreed that it was not a situation David would want to be in for long and so, after agonizing, my sister-in-law permitted his caregivers to turn the machines off and let nature take its course.

“Just keep talking”

His nurse came in and out a few times as she disconnected the machines that had been keeping him alive for more than a week. On one of those trips she smiled and said, “Just keep talking to him. He can hear you.” We looked at each other and my sister-in-law told him that the Blue Jays had won their most recent game, then turned to me and said, “I don’t know what to say . . .”

What should we say?

I knew how she felt. What should we say? I took his hand and thought about what would give him comfort in the final moments of his life and started. I don’t remember my exact words, but I do know that I told him how proud I was to have had him for a brother-in-law. I thanked him for taking such good care of my wife’s sister for the past 25 years. I said I knew his biggest concern would be for her and that he could rest easy because my wife and I would look after her for him. I reminded him that he had brought a great deal of comfort to others during their difficult times and now he could just relax and rest easy during his.

An audience of one

It was hard to know exactly when to stop talking, but I continued for as long as I thought he could hear me, at one point even saying that I would “try” to sit through a Blue Jays game for him (he knew I didn’t care much for baseball). In short, I tried to do what any speaker should do for any audience. I simply tried to think of what was most important to him and express it in a way that would comfort him. Comfort was the value I needed to provide to this audience of one.

A difficult subject

Death is a difficult subject for most of us, although it gets a little easier as we age and its inevitability becomes more obvious. I’ve talked before on this blog about talking to bereaved family and friends and now I’ve discovered, through personal experience, how to talk to loved ones who are in their final stages of life.

Farewell, my friend

I wish David well on his journey and I sincerely hope that the words and thoughts I shared with him gave him some comfort in his final moments.

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