What to Say to Death

Talking to my Dad when he could only listen


One of the synchronicities of life is that when my Dad’s cancer returned my sometimes boss, Wendy Macnaughton, was Artist in Residence at the Zen Hospice Project. We talked in her studio one afternoon and she mentioned that in the hospice center volunteer training program there’s a set of phrases that might be helpful to me. She could only remember a few of them, so I got home and googled. What I found was a handful of blog posts based off the idea of Hoʻoponopono, “an ancient Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Included in this idea is a list of phrases. Things to say to a dying person:Thank you. I love you. I’ll never forget. I’m sorry. Forgive me. I accidentally wrote forgive me as “I forgive you” but I’m glad to have had both.

I put those words on a post-it and stuck it to my computer. I didn’t know I’d need them so soon.

My Dad, who was diagnosed with the rare Triple Hit Lymphoma in September, was not doing well. His March bone marrow transplant failed after only a month. M.D. Anderson put him in a clinical trail immediately and it seemed to be working… except that it wasn’t. Something wasn’t right.

As April became May he was readmitted the hospital while the doctors took a week to figure out what was happening inside him. They told him on a Friday that the drug trial wasn’t working and there were nothing else they could do to stop the lymphoma. He moved to the palliative care floor. My Dad’s decline was swift, and by the time I arrived several days later, the opportunity for conversation was over. I could talk to him, and he could hear me, but that was it.

After the shock wore off, I said these 6 phrases over and over. They served as a “So your Dad is dying” mad libs. They helped me share my heart and feel like I had something to say even when everything was so screwed up and surreal that I could barely think straight. I will always be grateful that I had them. My sisters, mom, and uncle sat with him for a week and talked to him. We listened to music. We shared memories. He was gone a week after he learned he was dying.

I love you. Thank you. And as memories came up, I’d share them and talk about how special those times were to me. I’ll always remember. Thank you. Thank you for being my Dad. I love you. I’m sorry, Dad. Please forgive me. I forgive you.

It’s strange that the most basic common phrases are something that I needed to be reminded of when I was in the midst of crisis, when my brain and heart and whole person felt scrambled.

One of the blog posts (which I now cannot find, dang) mentioned that these phrases aren’t just good to say when someone is dying, but also things that we should all say more of in our day-to-day lives. I agree.

So when I got home, after his death and the funeral, in the midst of “normal” life, I still had them swirling around my head. With each phrase rotating and settling in from the repetition, I made something to get the thoughts out of my head and put through my hands on to paper. I made these images. I don’t know what they are but I had to do it and now they’re for you. And I hope they are helpful to you one day, not too soon, as they were helpful to me. And don’t forget.