I’m Never Going to See You Again

I’m Never Going to See You Again

People often feel uncomfortable about death and how to communicate with their loved one

18-10-2021 · Column

My aunt recently found out that her cancer has returned. This time, it is incurable, and she has only days to live. Her daughter recommended that I send my aunt a voice message so that she could hear my voice, and then she could decide if she wanted to reach out with a phone call.

Holding my phone, I felt tremendous sadness, but also fear: What do I say to my beloved aunt, who was dying way too young? Who has always feared cancer, which took the lives of her parents and sister at a young age, and was now experiencing the same fate?

My aunt has been a big part of my life, particularly when I lived back home in Canada. She was always ‘The Cool Aunt’, who hosted frequent sleepovers, where we would play board games and Nintendo late into the night. She was fiery, and could swear like a sailor. She always had a good story to tell, and we hung off of her every word. More recently, she helped me through the first months of being a mom, when I had endless insecurities.

Still having no idea what to say, I hit record. “I love you, Auntie Linda. I miss you. And I’m thinking of you.”

Moments later, the phone rang. It was my aunt. “I love you and I miss you, too.” Then, through tears, “And I’m never going to see you again.” The weight of her words hit like an anchor in the bottom of my stomach. We cried, and then simply sat in silence, together.  

I have thought about this phone call a lot. When everything is stripped away, what really matters? And what small things can we do in the face of death?

Thanatology (the scientific study of death) teaches us that one of the best things we can do for someone who is dying is to simply be present, to love them, and to listen to them. People often feel uncomfortable about death and how to communicate with their loved one. Unfortunately, this can lead to people filling up the space with their own chatter, or avoiding the person altogether.

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, who wrote When Breath Becomes Air in his final months of life, states that we are all dying, but people with a terminal illness simply have a better idea of when they will die. With that in mind, we can apply the knowledge of thanatology to show up more fully for the people in our life, today. In the words of another thanatology researcher: “In understanding the experience of dying, we comprehend of the purpose of living.”

On the day I write this, I am booking a flight to Canada. If even for just a few moments, I hope that I can still be (physically) present with my aunt, to listen to her and hold her hand.

Jessica Alleva, assistant professor at the faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience