Ask Dr. Giles: How do we make the most of the time we have left?

Mary Anne asks:

My 79yo dad was just dx with cholangiocarcinoma. Except for the past 2 weeks where he became ill leading to the dx, he has been extremely active(bike riding, bowling,handyman etc). The recent illness and dx have taken the wind out of his sails. I realize he needs time to adjust and absorb the dx and its implications. My ? is how do we as a family (6 grown kids) balance trying to keep things normal with thinking this could be the last time we can celebrate an event with him (like the father’s day recently was very awkward). I want to take the opportunity to make the most of everything like getting group pictures whenever family is together but don’t want to make it seem like I’ve given up. My mom’s 75th bday is soon then there’s their 55th wedding anniversary soon too. I also feel like people hear that he’s 79 and so it shouldn’t seem like a big deal since he has had a relatively long life already but he is such a great man and he has more life to live still. Any advice/guidance would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Mary Anne,

My heart goes out to you and your family as you face this aggressive disease.  It sounds like you have an amazing father who is full of life.

Your dilemma about trying to strike a balance between “keeping things normal” and reacting to the prospect that your father’s time with you may be coming to an end is a common one for families of those who are seriously ill.  The reality of death has a sobering and clarifying effect on us.  It prompts us to re-think our priorities and look around us with a new awareness of what is really important.  Families with a member near death often find themselves hugging more, saying “I love you” more, and being gentler to those around them.  The wonder of every day becomes more obvious to them.

May I suggest that you take full advantage of the clarifying effect of your father’s illness?  It is good that you see the time with your father as precious.  In fact, I would say that your time with any of your family is precious.  I recently was told of a family whose son–we’ll call him Bill–had been ill for a long time.  When a neighbor was told that a son in that family had died, he assumed it was Bill.  It was, however, another son who had died in a sudden accident.  Bill lived on.  The family was expecting the end of one life, but it was another which ended first.

The truth is, Mary Anne, that none of us knows how long we have with our loved ones.  I say take full advantage of the impulse you have to capture the memories you are making with your father.  You are not “giving up.”  Rather, you are acting on the realization that the time we have in this life with our loved ones is finite, and every moment together is one that can be cherished and savored.