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I recently had a conversation like this:

Coworker: I just wanted to let you know that I'm probably going to be out early next week. My father is on death's door.

Me: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.

Coworker: Actually, it's a good thing. He's been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease for years and has gotten to the point where he's forgotten how to swallow. Frankly, I'm glad that his suffering is about to end.

How do I respond to this? It seems that expressing condolences isn't what the person wants, given that they responded this way after I said it the first time. But I don't think I can bring myself to say that I'm happy that someone I don't know is about to die. How do I respond to this?

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    @EdwinLambregts If you have an answer, please post it below. Comments do not have the features needed to properly vet whatever is said here, and only invites others to respond in kind. – Robert Cartaino Aug 17 '17 at 13:05

10 Answers 10

90

It's never easy to deal with the death of a loved one, even in these cases. The main difference in my experience is that the grieving process starts years earlier... My grandmother was in a similar state when she passed, she'd been suffering for a long time, and she hadn't been herself for years. For the most part my family was glad that she didn't have to suffer like that anymore.

Often the best thing to do is just to check in when they return from leave with a more general inquiry, like:

How are you holding up?

Or:

How's the family?

It shows that you're concerned about their well being, but doesn't place an expectation about how they should grieve.

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    I have nothing against the advice given here, in general, but this Answer does not address the Question: how to respond to a person to whom you've just offered condolences who responds in turn that they're actually glad. This Answer tells why the grieving might feel that way and offers advice for what to say when they return from leave. But to the OP's question, shall he just walk away, ignore the grieving's response? What should he say right then? That is the question asked. If this Answer works for people, the Question should be changed. Preferred: Modify this Answer to address the Question. – WeaselADAPT Aug 17 '17 at 16:51
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    @WeaselADAPT The person who asked the question and some 53 others seem to disagree. – apaul Aug 17 '17 at 16:53
  • I see that, @apaul34208. That's why I left the comment. Do you really believe the (your) answer addresses the question asked, as it was asked? – WeaselADAPT Aug 17 '17 at 16:59
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    @WeaselADAPT You can say the same kind of thing before the person dies – Stephen S Aug 17 '17 at 23:34
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    +1 to @WeaselADAPT This is a great answer, but it is lacking in advice for an immediate response to the given reaction. If the answer also applies as an immediate reply, it should be stated as such in the answer; but I personally don't think it would work quite as well as an immediate follow up, as currently phrased. Perhaps with a statement of sympathy prefixed it would work: "I can only begin to imagine how that must feel; how are you holding up?" or "I went through the same thing with my mother, I understand how you feel. How is everyone else coping?" – John T Aug 18 '17 at 20:29
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Chances are, if someone's loved one is suffering, they will appreciate sympathy regardless of whether they're looking for condolences. It sounds to me like what you want to do is react in a sympathetic and understanding manner without disregarding their belief that what is happening is for the best.

In a situation like this, what I would do is "follow their lead." Express sympathy on the subject in a way that follows the difficulties they express as they explain their story. After hearing their response, you could say:

Alzheimer's is such a difficult condition, that's really tough.

Sometimes, people who are grieving strive to focus on the positive, and they appreciate positive thoughts as well. That could be especially true if you notice that the person seems to be maintaining a positive demeanor even during such a discussion. For that reason, it can't hurt to say something like this:

It's good that you're going to get a chance to spend some time with him now.

Ultimately, navigating a social situation like this is challenging and it helps to be aware of how the other person is reacting and try to follow their lead in a way that makes them feel comfortable, expressing sympathy without overdoing it. You can never be certain what someone is feeling on the inside, regardless of what face they choose to put on externally. But regardless of what they're feeling, it's hard to go wrong by expressing genuine sympathy and offering positive thoughts.

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    OMG @RaceYouAnytime, you too -- so many good members from ELU have started being active at Interpersonal.SE, and it is so good to see! I remember the word often used in OP's situation is "deliverance": too long she has suffered ; it is for her a deliverance. [although I could never quite feel that way, even when my 3 grandparents passed through this: as in, this is the life force in them that has brought them this far,and they would probably fight to the bitter end, so it is not our place to feel glad or even relieved for their deliverance! Philosophies can differ but all fight to live.] – English Student Aug 16 '17 at 0:35
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    @EngilshStudent I agree, it's like running into friends while going out. I'm also glad to see people getting involved! – RaceYouAnytime Aug 16 '17 at 0:42
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    I might avoid "It's good that you're going to get a chance to spend some time with him now." Because it sounds like they no longer really can spend time "with" them due to the effects of Alzheimer's. At that point it's not really spending time with "them" because they aren't really themselves. – JMac Aug 16 '17 at 10:15
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For many reasons stated elsewhere in this thread (it's best to follow the grieving person's lead, while offering any support you can), I would keep it simple. That should help you avoid accidentally saying something that might have the opposite effect as intended.

I would suggest:

I'm sure it's been awfully difficult...

It leaves it open-ended, up to the recipient to define what exactly you mean by "it" and who you mean it was difficult for. And however they choose to take it, it will almost surely be a true and accurate statement. Most people will take something like this to mean whichever definition comes closest to what they feel to be true:

"Yes, it's been terribly difficult on me/us/the kids/his wife/the caregivers/the nearly departed."

If they say something in response, listen closely and respond as kindly as you can.

If you knew the person who's about to pass before the disease took over, it's always nice to interrupt the despair (or whatever the person in front of you has been feeling) with a nice memory from when they were healthy, happy, and strong.

Personally, I would suggest stifling any urges to bring up your own dear relatives' passing. It may feel like empathy, but it usually comes across as shallow and dismissive of their ordeal. This is their time. Commiserate a few months after or on their timetable. A possible exception is if there's something from your experience that would definitely be helpful or that you believe they'd benefit from.

10

My wife passed away a few years ago after a relatively long terminal illness.

I found that the best thing for people to wish for is "peace and comfort", which is exactly what she had toward the end of her life.

So

Wishing you and your family peace and comfort

Seems to be an appropriate and sympathetic response here.

I had plenty of people telling me how awful things must be and how bad I must be feeling. After a while, you get pretty annoyed at being told how to feel, so try not to fall into that same trap.

4

Condolences are still appropriate; the coworker has still lost a loved one, even if they feel it already happened some time ago.

Sentiments such as:

I'm sure it's hard to see that happen to someone close to you

or

That sounds like it's been a rough process for you and your family

convey recognition/sympathy that the hardship isn't just about the death (which can actually be a relieving thing, as your coworker mentioned) but rather about the whole process of the illness.

4

If there is anything I can do to help I am here for you.

There is nothing you can say here that will make them feel better than knowing you have their back for this. They do not need a lecture from you or a pep talk or any philosophical anecdote.

It's fine to let them know if you had something similar you dealt with but do not do it with the intent of taking the focus off of them. They need to grieve, if they have questions they will ask, otherwise allow them time to process while letting them know you are there.

3

While a stronger connection with the individual would like to lead to a more personalized answer, I've found that when I don't have an intimate connection with someone, a reasonable response has been

"I hope this goes as well as it can for you and your family, given the circumstances."

Fairly generic, but gets across what I feel for the individual and doesn't pass judgment on anything they may be doing to cope with the situation. It's a difficult situation to start making assumptions about what the person is feeling because that could lead to an insensitive comment despite the intention to be supportive.

3

You respond:

I am sorry. Alzheimer's is a terrible thing -- for the family as well as for the patient.

The next step, if any, is up to your co-worker.

What more should I say in this answer? I know several people who have had close relatives with Alzheimer's and I know what it does. Your co-worker is right, IMO, to be glad that this indignity is over for his father. What your co-worker may feel, in part, is a guilty relief that the ordeal is over for his family, too. The response I suggested shows that you recognize the ordeal of the family.

1

Note: This question had not specified a "United States" tag when I wrote this answer, which is therefore not specifically about USA or Alzheimer's, and the approach noted below needs to be used not indiscriminately but with caution and sensitivity, being tailored to the individual case, especially in situations regarding those whose end-of-life issues were particularly difficult. Moreover, many comments under this answer have disagreed with these suggestions, which indicates that there are major cultural differences in these matters, but I shall try to explain how we tend to console the bereaved in such situations in India, which is very much a religious/ spiritual/ philosophical society with, additionally, generic reverence for the elderly: this type of consolation is typically offered and well-received among Indians, but cultural expectations can differ in other parts of the world.


I have found it hard to agree with the expressed sentiment referenced in this question (glad their loved one's suffering will soon end, I mean), but in my experience,

(1) saying something sympathetically philosophical in this situation, especially highlighting the positive attributes of the deceased/terminally ill person works well to compose the bereaved and put them in a contemplative frame of mind: same as when somebody's loved one has passed away after an illness. Examples I have often used or heard used include:

Death comes to all. I should be proud of the dignity with which your loved one made the passing. I am sure you gave him/her the best possible care (including the best possible medical care.)

Time of death is no man's to predict -- maybe they will pull on many days yet and in that case, so be it! When they do pass (or as a condolence: now that they have passed) we could celebrate their life and achievements, especially how many people they were able to influence in a positive manner.

Oh well, we all have to go sometime. But those who knew your loved one will remember them as a quietly great person.

A degree of sincere empathy is needed to say this effectively but I found myself (I am almost embarrassed to find) very good at it, because of feeling and communicating those sentiments in a true manner, and I was glad to comfort some people this way, also amazed how well they cheered up! (this doesn't work of course for a sudden death or a person in critical condition after an accident or sudden illness, but is suitable for your situation.)

(2) If somebody in your family had passed through a similar terminal illness, it may be good to mention that to show you know that trauma, and the bereaved family is not alone in their experience. Example:

I know how it feels, my grandfather had repeated heart attacks and was in intensive care for a month. It was very tough for him but he fought it out with great courage and I am sure you loved one did the same.

(3) If the bereaved is a religious person, then it is common to offer some appropriate religious consolation, which works particularly well (compared to any other approach) in these cases because the person has religion to fall back on for solace. However, it should never be said if they are non-religious or you are not sure.


Note: the word often used in this context is "deliverance":

too long she has suffered; it is for her a deliverance

[although I could never quite feel that way, even when my 3 grandparents passed through this: as in, this is the life force in them that has brought them this far, and they would probably fight to the bitter end, so it is not our place to feel glad or even relieved for their deliverance! Philosophies can differ but all fight to live.]

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    I'm sorry but my father in law is suffering from Alzheimer's and there's nothing dignified about how the end of his life is going. If someone said that to me I would find it quite upsetting. I don't think your suggestions are appropriate for someone you don't even know. – Catija Aug 16 '17 at 1:55
  • My grandmother died after a fight with Alzhiemer's just 6 months ago so I know exactly what you mean. However, you can read my answer, @Catija and see I did not say 'dignity' specifically for Alzhiemer's -- that is an example of a statement that might possibly be suitable for other challenging diseases. – English Student Aug 16 '17 at 2:06
  • True, @EnglishStudent, you did not. But you didn't state otherwise, either. Remember, the idea at StackExchange is not simply to answer Questions for the people who ask them, but to create a repository of the best Answers. So, if someone asks [Search Engine] a similar question as our OP here and is directed to this Question, we want them to find the best Answers for their situation, too. Since the OP does reference Alzheimer's, and in your exchange with Catija you agree your suggestions may be less applicable in that case, it would be best to articulate that somewhere in your Answer. Thanks! – WeaselADAPT Aug 16 '17 at 2:57
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    @EnglishStudent This question is about someone who is "glad their loved one's suffering will end soon due to death". I think rarely if ever would a person feel that way unless it was a long drawn out process. Often times this is far from dignified, and quite painful for everyone involved. For this situation in general; that statement seems more likely to be offensive than comforting IMO. These are the situations where people don't often get the choice for a dignified death. Their loved ones have to watch them slip away. – JMac Aug 16 '17 at 10:34
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    @Chad I learned through the comments of at least 6 users including yourself that this type of philosophical/spiritual comfort routinely given by friends and well received by the bereaved in India in this type of situation is obviously controversial and 'no longer well-received' in your part of the world. I have now included this information in the Answer. It's good to see that at least 2 excellent answers including yours may have been posted in direct response to my own answer. Your feedback (which helped me clarify my answer as likely to be culture-specific advice) is much appreciated. – English Student Aug 16 '17 at 20:35
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You can reply that only the people who take seriously their sensuality --- including opinions, ideas, speculations, fantasies, beliefs, compliance (or lack thereof) of some behavior with respect to these ideas, rules, fantasies ...) --- have faith that death dissolves any suffering, by claiming that there is nothing wrong with the sensuality beforehand, that having equanimity towards the senses is futile, and that, even if there is something wrong with caring so much about the sensuality, at the death cease this craving for sensual pleasure and this despite of sensual displeasure.

You can also add that the suffering seems more on the side of the persons who deal with the old person, than on the old person, by projecting their faith in sensuality on their speculative lack of sensuality seemed to be experienced by the old person. These people are right that being old and ''sick'' seems dreadful, but the solution to stop being old, sad and ill is not by death. Their speculation is natural and expected from any person having faith in her hedonism. The good news is that even if this faith is natural and stupid, it can be erased to make the ''suffering'' stop for good.

Here is the method to stop being miserable once and for all, instead of stopping the sadness for while à la hedonists:


The training is the calming the mind to prepare the person to see that ''dispassion towards sensuality is good '', (once the appetite for sensuality is no longer a drive, there is still something to stop caring about, but this is not important for a beginner), with the first effect being the attenuation of being attracted to thoughts. So the way to do this is first to watch typically the breath a few minutes, then when a distraction arrives, person recalls that having the monkey mind, day dreaming, thinking about past and future, expecting things, thinking about our losses, brings misery. Once done this, the person goes back to something grounding and pleasing (or non-harming) like the body or the breath (but at the beginning, watching the breath is not pleasing, and turns into boredom which becomes an excitement for ending the mediation), so one must stick to the body and watch how comfortable it is to be in contact with the material support (like a bed, after a day of being exhausted by manual labor) by relaxing any tension in the body (typically through the muscles). generally, when the focus on the breath or the body is lost, the muscles of the face are tensed and they must be relaxed.

The most important point for mediation is that:

  • the joy or pleasure makes the person focused (like in any other activity, if we enjoy an activity, then we do not think about hunger, about pains, about fatigue, about the future; the pleasure makes us keep doing what we are doing)
  • but the pleasures which do not come from the senses is far better than the sensual pleasures (including the intellect), these pleasures arrive with first jhana (people fail to see this)
  • the way to get this pleasure is first to calm the intellect which is done by seeing that having the monkey mind is displeasing and exhausting and it is not stopped by willing to stop it, then by keeping the focus on the body or breath and relaxing any tension
  • the way to be moral, like some people say, is the first step to decrease the monkey mind [not lying, not building stories, not stealing, not getting into entertainment, sensuality as soon as we can, which is done by seeing that the fear of missing out on social life makes us miserable, and that there will be as much entertainment, opportunities to enjoy oneself tomorrow than there is today, so we can take a break for a while from of this entertainment]

Doing this ''meditation'' over and over will make the sadness disappear during the cession, even a bit afterwards, but once the mediation is not longer done for good, everything will turn back to what we live today. SOme normal persons use their faith in materialism to rely on drugs to achieve these states, and sooner or later, the effects disappear bringing a sadness. The way to stop being miserable once and for all is to meditate and afterwards reflect on the source of this misery, by willing to end our misery once and for all, accepting any consequence that this brings [it turns out that the price is to stop ''enjoying'' pleasures through the 6 senses and to rely only on the jhanas].

For instance people claim that being hungry is suffering and that stopping people to feel hunger is to feed them. This is ineffective:

  • get hungry
  • get displeasure from hungriness
  • feed
  • may get pleasure from food
  • get hungry again and still disliking it
  • =>feeding is not the way to stop being hungry and being displeased by hungriness

Same thing with tiredness. People dislike tiredness, and they claim that sleeping is the way to stop being tired. this is false:

  • get tired
  • sleep
  • wake up
  • get tired again
  • =>sleeping is not the way to stop being tired

this is how we identify the way to see that whatever we did so far in life did not prevent us from feeling miserable; same for being ''miserable":

  • be miserable
  • reading a novel, daydreaming, painting, having a purpose, objectives, goals, whatever normal people do
  • feel miserable again
  • =>being entertained etc. is not the way to stop being miserable as soon as the displeasure, the annoyance, the discomfort, the boredom, the pain come back, however small they are, we know that it failed whatever happened between the two times where we were annoyed and so we do not continue to do them, since our only goal is to stop being miserable once and for all. this is how to judge if an action, a speech or a thought is effective about stopping the misery

Following the doctrine begins when there is a ''will'' to stop being ''unhappy'', miserable, disappointed, no matter what the pleasures (and their costs) is experienced so far. The ''harmless fun'', physical or not, that people crave is nice and if we get it without much work, then lucky us; but once the stupidity of relying on sensuality is seen, the person is not driven, towards anything, by the boredom, the pleasures nor pains, in daily life, nor even the ones of the jhanas, but the person is driven only towards the end of the faith in sensuality and becoming, and driven only by knowing that this method is the only thing relevant to do (for as long as the person is living).

Of course any normal person is driven, towards anything, by the current tastes, (which change sooner or later), by what is liked and what is disliked, by pleasures and avoiding pains and hardships (directly, or by constructing some story that being in pain, disappointments, hardships, predicaments are worth it or have some merit or are deserved). This holds for the normal people who follow this method and for non-bodily drives, there can be faith-doubt(choose the word we see as negative), boredom in their life, tradition, curiosity, realizing their fantasy of becoming righteous, their fantasy of the knowledge of the ''true nature of reality''.

It turns out that, for normal persons, having non-physical pleasures makes the mind plastic, concentrated, still, non-agitated. Even if there remain some faiths in some god, in some boasting about the success of the jhanas, some faith in something else than the method, This mind is the ideal mind to meditate on the source of the misery and its extinction.

The students will have the healthy mind, since they are told to stop worrying (and are made so by being secluded and far away from all this hustle and bustle) about, being still towards ''social'' matters (typically some contests, hierarchies, like a career, a social fight), which is the basis for contemplating, the continuation of being still with respect to bodily pains/pleasures and boredom, before meditating on their misery ---- which really means ''there is the knowledge that there is still misery, no matter what has been done before'', then all there is the radical stop of being sad, whatever the consequences this would bring to this existence and there is their acceptation , there is only caring about no longer being unhappy; then there is the insight that ''there is misery, because there are not the objects desired (such as cars, heaters, foods, travels, being judged innocent in some trial, paying less taxes, having joy or pride of giving some pleasures to a few people, feeling relevant to some humans, expressing some opinions about something, claiming to be righteous, having dignity, believing to behave in agreement to some rules), but this misery happens only because there is a taking up of consciousness, feelings and all that stuff always impermanent, uncontrollable, not myself-me-mine, what people call ''ego'' or self casually, which did not give what was wanted before (not for very long) no matter how much effort is put to keep the good experiences; there is no longer a misery, once and for all, once there is no taking up of, taking as basis in those stuff always impermanent and uncontrollable, not myself-me-mine''; then the dispassion towards all those stuff happens which brings the knowledge of ''right view'' like some people say; then the natural and only relevant step to do is to contemplate-meditate to settle this right view once and for all and be done with the doctrine.

Before this meditation, The only ''sadness'' that there is is the knowledge that there is no contemplation carried out, yet needed to finish the path.

  • I don't think that a philosophical discussion is the right response to someone in this situation. – Thunderforge Aug 20 '17 at 20:12

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