I have a co-worker whose father is fighting cancer. He has been on hospice for two years after being unable to take chemo due to his weak heart. I've known her for many years; we worked together at another firm and then followed our guys over to our current company. At both firms we've backed each other up and we've traveled together at both firms. However, she is a very private person and I've always respected that factor. During these two years she has lived with her cell phone in her hand, waiting for a call. She has taken off a day to meet with the funeral home to make arrangements. She has come to me on several times, fighting tears, unable to talk, to tell me she had to leave. From time to time we've chatted about her father, but then only briefly. She knew that I lost both parents to cancer and I told her once that I knew the road she was walking.
She was out yesterday because her mother was no longer able to lift her dad and she had to help them. I knew that they were trying to get him into a nursing home as quickly as possible. I expected her to be out again today. Late morning I walked by her desk and she was there. I greeted her and explained that I did not expect to see her today. She in turn explained that they had gotten her father into a VA facility and she had stayed with him for a while during the morning but he was sleeping so she decided to come on into work. Her brother was coming for the afternoon shift. She looked exhausted. We talked for a few minutes and then, with tears in her eyes, she thanked me for asking about her father. She then made the statement, "I need to talk to someone, and no one has asked me about my father. It's like no one wants to talk to me." This very private person just needed someone to talk to. We talked for a while and then I told her that whenever she needed to talk to just come down to my desk. A few minutes later she appeared at my desk and sat and we talked for a while. She looked better.
I realized something very important today. I'm often hesitant to ask someone how they are, or how a family member is doing when there is a terminal illness. I respect people's privacy so much that I don't want to intrude or upset them. I also don't always know what to say. I've learned in the case of a death to just simply say, "I'm so sorry." But in the case of a terminally ill person I just didn't know what to say, until today. Now I know to just ask, "how are you" or " how's it going". That opens the door gently for someone you aren't sure about.