21/03/2016 5:28 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

How To Support A Friend Whose Loved One Is Dying

If you want to ask after someone, ask them in your normal voice, with your normal face, and be prepared for whatever the answer might be.

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To put it bluntly, losing someone you love is really, really shitty. Except you don't really 'lose' them. It's not like you don't know where they went and you're hoping one day they'll pop up between the couch cushions.

The fact is, people die, and sometimes, dying can take a long time. It's heart-breaking, it's hard, and -- sometimes -- it's grossly unfair.

I can only speak from my own experiences here, but my Dad dying from cancer was akin to someone dying from a thousand paper cuts. It happened bit by bit, over years and years.

First came the diagnosis -- upsetting, of course -- but prostate cancer was a "good" cancer, so thank God for that. Then came the news it wasn't the normal kind of prostate cancer, so things would be more difficult. Then came the treatments, unrelenting in their aggression, and then came the news it wasn't going away. It was terminal -- but we still had three to five years.

But that turned out not to be the case either, and so it goes.

As I said, it's really, really shitty. And to be honest, no one really gets it unless they've been through it themselves, which is where my old flatmate Beth comes in. Having lost her mum to cancer, Beth knew exactly what I was going through, and had a list of advice to boot. Not necessarily for me, but for everyone else.

Because here's the thing: when someone you love is dying, even if you don't want to talk about it, you have to. People will straight up ask. Questions like, "how is your Dad these days?" will fly thick and fast and it will your job to inform them that, no, chemo is no longer an option, or to reassure them with, yes, he sure is hanging in there.

Of course, people only want to help. They care. They don't know it's the seventh time you've had that conversation that day. And it's nice to be asked. You don't want not to be asked, as though it's taboo or he's dead already. See how muddy the waters are already?

Dealing with this situation can be awkward, and difficult, and, to be frank, sometimes people can really screw it up. So here are some tips, courtesy of Beth and me, about what to do if you have a friend whose loved one is dying.

Quit it with the sad eyes

Want to know what sad eyes are? They look like this.

Seriously, stop it. Wipe those big, trembling sympathy balls off your face right now. No one wants to see them.

It's one thing to actually be sympathetic and concerned, it's another to try and force those feelings to beam out of your face. If you want to ask after someone, ask them in your normal voice, with your normal face, and be prepared for whatever the answer might be.

Ask, but don't probe

Your friend will let you know when and if they feel like getting into the nitty gritty details, so follow their lead. By all means, ask them about the situation when you see them -- they'll be expecting it, anyway -- but if you're getting the signal they don't want to talk about it, then they don't want to talk about it.

Trust me, if you're a close friend, the time will come when they will unload. If you're not a close friend, you'll get what they want to tell you, and that's it.

Avoid clichés

"He'll pull through." "He's a fighter." "If anyone can beat it, it's him."

Though meaning well, these expressions are actually just annoying, particularly if it's a terminal disease.

Instead, why not try "So what does that mean?" or even a simple "I'm so sorry. It sounds really rough. Is there anything I can do?"

It's okay to cry, but it's not about you

When I told my best friend that Dad had a matter of months to live, she burst into tears. She then spent the next 10 minutes apologising for crying, because she should be comforting me and not the other way around.

It is okay to cry. My best friend loved my Dad. Of course she was upset. Her crying just showed me how much she cared.

However, in a different situation, I bumped into an old school friend, someone who I'm no longer really in touch with, who positively wailed at the news. She rattled off every single thing she could think about Dad and how tragic it was and oh god WHYY while everyone in the chemist turned and stared.

That was weird. Try not to do that.

Herbal remedies are not a cure

I think the last time I truly saw red was when someone I barely knew suggested cancer was totally curable if you just did a bit of research online, and that my Dad should try a coffee enema. Gee, if only he had bothered to Google.

Trust me -- no one wants to hear about how some chick in Byron cured cancer by thinking only good thoughts. If that stuff worked, no one in their right mind would line up for the invasive treatments currently available. Do you really think anyone does chemo for funsies?

Finally, if the worst happens...

If the person in question passes away, here are some things you should do.

  1. Go to the funeral.
  2. If appropriate, offer to help at the wake.
  3. Be available if your friend needs you, even if that means just getting really drunk with them and having a good cry.
  4. Send flowers IN A VASE. This is very important. Your friend will be most likely inundated with flower deliveries, and it's unlikely they will own enough vases to deal with them all.
  5. Be patient. Even though everyone has known this was coming for some time, it's still a shock when it eventually happens, and they'll be needing your support for some time to come.

I think at the end of the day, the most important thing is to still be yourself and to remain true to the relationship you have. Your friend doesn't want a censored, watered-down, super sympathetic version of you. They just want you. And they probably want you to say something like: "Well this is really shit. Can I get you a giant glass of wine?"