How to talk with a dying friend

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[4-minute read] What a dying friend taught me

The inevitability of death, mortality, and awareness of the human condition is certainly not part of my daily reflection. That changed swiftly in the last 60 days and culminated in the unfortunate news I received a few short days ago.

For most of the 90’s Dave and I worked together closely at a large conference center in Washington state. After moving to California in 1998 we lost touch for over 20 years. He was not only a coworker and colleague but a friend. Someone who had shared the arrival of both my children- a man who could be confided in and who laughed heartily at a good joke.

An unexpected text on November 6th would connect us again with the most unwelcomed news. It read in part “James spoke with Dave and he asked if he can have your number. He’s in the hospital and doesn’t have much time”. Of course, my reply was “absolutely”, Dave could contact me anytime.

That evening I mused, “how do you talk with a friend who’s dying? Will I say something wrong, insensitive, or simply inappropriate?”  The next afternoon having just sat down after completing some yard work my phone rang. The Caller ID displayed a familiar name. After the first few minutes of chatting the previous day’s apprehensions quickly faded. 

An hour and a half later I hung up realizing something both ironic and yet uniquely human as to how those who fall ill and their family and friends may confront impending or certain death. First, there’s the humor and lots of it. Most of our conversation was spent laughing recalling a few of our more hilarious shared adventures. I teased him good-naturedly as I would any other of my fellow buddies. And while the sadness of his certain death hovered in the back of my mind it didn’t dominate or overshadow our conversation.

Despite his dire circumstances Dave easily found solace in humor and laughter. A little dispensing of sarcasm here, a dash of teasing there, and an occasional nod to mortality itself made those 90 minutes feel as if they were but a fleeting moment.

Over the subsequent seven weeks, we caught up on the goings-on of two decades passed by while I sent him a Google photo album of family, kids, and my daughter’s recent wedding. During one call we discussed the circumstances that led to his admission to the cancer ward of one of Denver’s largest hospitals, and his plan to go into a hospice home in the beautiful state of Tennessee.

A few weeks later, having few living relativeness, Dave ended up staying in a Motel Six until a hospice room opened up that same week. The low-hanging fruit from those conversations was a few corny Tom Bodett ‘we’ll leave the light on for ya’ jokes and a candid discussion of his need for an IV pain management- sooner rather than later.

Dave’s perspective was one the fortunate rarely possess. He was ready to go. He had accepted his fate with serenity, dignity, and faith in someone far greater than himself. He was at peace knowing the ephemeral nature of life- a reality few healthy people grasp.  That conversation shakes the complacency from most and imbues one with the appreciation as to just how fragile we are and the preciousness of life itself. We last spoke on December 22nd and traded Christmas greetings by text on the 25th before my family and I left for a week-long holiday.

These fifty-four days of intermittent conversation and reflection coincidently ended with the odious year known as 2020. New Year’s day morning I awoke to find I had a missed call from Tennessee…the caller ID read ‘hospice’. I dialed to learn what my heart and mind already knew. A nurse informed me that Dave had passed away at 9 pm on New Year’s eve. I thanked her and the staff for being angels without wings and caring for my friend as he made his final journey.

In the days that followed, the lessons my friend had unwittingly taught came into focus- one of which was that someone facing certain death seldom wants to be pitied or treated with kid gloves. The other is that our shared experiences are what make us who we are and serve as the foundation of all relationships. That the little moments in life are the most important yet are routinely lost or forgotten. And most importantly, life itself is a gift.

To merely grieve would strike me as distasteful and cheap. However, to miss a friend while treasuring and sharing the lessons he unconsciously exuded strikes home as perhaps the most fitting tribute. One he would appreciate.

As reverse mortgage professionals, we occasionally encounter those who are facing a terminal illness not to mention that several of you reading this have lost friends and family members. What lessons have you drawn from your experience? Does the mindfulness of mortality awaken your passion to help older homeowners enjoy their most precious of years?

As we miss those like Dave perhaps we can honor them with mindfulness, compassion, and a zeal for life.

Shannon Hicks.


louis Marasco January 5, 2021 at 6:52 am

Thanks for sharing, a most difficult part of life, death…

Tom O’Donoghue January 5, 2021 at 7:28 am

Very moving Shannon. Your story motivates me to reach out to my old dear friendship.

Sandy Sasser January 5, 2021 at 9:06 am

Having lost my very best, dearest friend of 60 years, just 2 short years ago, your words ring true of wisdom and love of friend or family that lingers on for a lifetime. Thank you Shannon for sharing, reminding us that we are only here for a short time and it’s the love we share is ultimately the most important experience of our lives.

Roger Howell January 5, 2021 at 9:50 am

Good article. thanks for sharing your story.

I had a recent HECM closing where the borrower knew he was terminal, but was setting his wife up to stay in the home. The conversations were very factual and to the point; the kind of the clarity you described that your friend had. It made the conversations much easier and helped us focus on the goal, keeping his wife in the home for as long as possible.

Three weeks after closing, my client passed away. It was sad, but the conversations also helped me get past the sadness of his passing. I hope to have his strength when my time comes.

John Thompson January 6, 2021 at 10:40 am

Shannon – Thanks so much for sharing. It is very easy to get caught up in our own worlds and BS and you remind us that what is most important is teh human connection and shared memories and experiences, right up to the end of this life!

James E. Veale, CPA, MBT January 7, 2021 at 3:10 pm


Two years ago, I looked up someone who guided me through my first experience of running the income tax department of a Fortune 250 company. While he was my subordinate, his help was indispensable and irreplaceable. It was surprising that he now was no longer living along the southeast side of the San Francisco Bay a few miles south of Oakland, but was now living in Stockton, CA. I wanted to find out what had happened to him in the last 33 years.

When I called Sam his wife answered. She was acting very guardedly. We had never met. So I chalked her guardedness up to that. I told her that Sam and I had worked together 33 years ago and wanted to thank him for making my experience far more pleasant than it might have otherwise been. Reluctantly, she told Sam that I was on the phone. In a rather shaken voice Sam came on the line. I reminded him of who I was and thanked him for his help.

After a couple of awkward moments, Sam told me that he did not know who I was or why I would call him. It was clear that the call had disturbed him. Immediately his wife picked up the phone and told me that Sam had Alzheimer’s and thanked me for calling but told me to never call Sam again. That was one of the saddest moments in my seventy plus years.

So I am glad you were able to interact with your friend. My time to interact with Sam ended before he or I have passed. Both situations lead me to the conclusion that reaching out to former friends and having them respond as your friend did is a rich blessing even though it comes with a loss.

Melinda Opperman January 8, 2021 at 11:32 am

Shannon — your story is very impactful. It reminds me that relationships with family, friends, and coworkers are one of the most valuable blessings of our lives and what a lasting legacy it can leave. It’s awesome that you could be there for your friend.

Shannon Hicks January 8, 2021 at 1:04 pm

Thank you Melinda. These are certainly teachable moments.


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