If you’ve ever found yourself without the right words of support for those with an illness they cannot beat; novels may offer insights and ways to hone your support skills.

The Household Guide to Dying
takes us on Delia’s very personal journey in the last year of her life, a journey that is qualitatively different to any that she, or us, have ever taken. Delia captures the meaning of her life in two parts. The first part is her journey to a place where she created a new life as a single mother and raised her son Sonny. Here Delia seeks the person who embodies the ‘throbbing gift’ she left behind. The second part is the home-based day-to-day management, preparing for her family’s future by stocking the freezer, writing letters to her girls and writing an amusing practical guide to dying.

Aware that a friend or partner may have a similar need, we seek possible respectful support roles. We can:

  • Be sensitive to their need to ‘complete’ and resolve issues that have particular significance for them;
  • ‘Step back’ if we perceive that our friend is in such a difficult or vulnerable place that they may not be able to communicate how they’re feeling; and
  • Admit we don’t know how they feel. This can leave them in control and us more open.

Still Alice is told vividly from the perspective of Alice, her end-of-life journey with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Alice’s partner is so shocked and distraught by the Alice who can no longer dress herself and operate the television, he takes a job in another town rather than share a sabbatical year with her. In stark contrast, Alice’s daughter was able to appreciate and empower the ‘functions’ her mother still possessed, such as her ability to understand and share a range of emotions.

If we take just one of the many insights this book offers, for me it would be seeing how the typical response to a person with Alzheimer’s is to be blind to their functioning parts – their humour, their love, their senses.

Aware that a friend or partner may have Alzheimer’s, we can deliberately choose to:

  • Be open and forensically aware of all the functions that do work, and the times they work best for sharing friendship;
  • Understand good days and bad, and know it’s worth coming back for a better day; and
  • Seek to relate on all the levels on which our friend still relates.

The insights are powerful as we give our full attention to journeying with Delia to affirm her life and to listen to Alice’s plea to enable the parts of her which are still functioning. It may take time to discover our friends’ real needs, but it’s well worth the effort.

The best things to say to someone experiencing grief

  1. I am so sorry for your loss.
  2. I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
  3. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.
  4. You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
  5. My favourite memory of your loved one is…
  6. I am always just a phone call away.
  7. Give a hug instead of saying something.
  8. We all need help at times like this, I am here for you.
  9. I am usually up early or late, if you need anything.
  10. Saying nothing, just be with the person.

The Household Guide to Dying, Debra Adelaide, 2008, HarperCollins

Still Alice, Lisa Genova, 2007, Simon and Schuster

Gabrielle Leahy (BA M Policy & App Social Research) is an accredited Retirement Coach. She has worked extensively across the ageing sector, gaining valuable insights into how older age is lived well, and where the traps lie. Gabrielle assists people to use their skills and personal strengths to find new directions, kick-stark their retirement and avoid retirement traps. She has designed Retire & Flourish to include processes to enable retirees easy entry to their unique retirement journey and to provide valuable information and expertise across a range of fields relevant to retirement.