How much time is left?/Questions I don't want to answer

Photo by  Uroš Jovičić  on  Unsplash

Several times a week, a patient or family member asks me this question that immediately stresses me out: “How much time do you think is left?”

The short answer is, I don’t know. The longer answer is still I don’t know but I can add some variables. There are signs that tell us the body is shutting down: changes in breathing, mottling of the hands and feet, a fever, etc. But there’s no exact science to determine how long the dying process can go on. I tell people that I’m wrong as often as I’m right. Still, people want to know.

Usually I answer that question with a question of my own: what would you do differently if you knew how much time was left? Generally, the answer is nothing. Occasionally there are some practical concerns (taking time off work, for instance). But on the whole, this is a question borne of anxiety: what should I say? What should I be doing? There are no magic answers to these questions.

That being said, I did read once that there are only four things you need to say when someone is dying: I’m sorry, I forgive you, I love you, and thank you. Sometimes I tell my families this. I remind them that even if their loved one isn’t answering, they can hear; hearing is the last sense to leave us. But mostly, when faced with this question, I reinforce that everyone is doing everything right, and how much time doesn’t really matter.

This makes me think about all the questions we get asked as social workers that we really don’t want to answer or that we simply can’t answer. Early on in my practice, I was not great at fielding these questions. I so wanted to have an answer to everything that I sometimes forgot to pause and consider my words before I spoke. Sometimes I would answer before I really knew what I was saying because I was so anxious to fill the silence, to reassure the patient or the family, to be the most knowledgeable person in the room. I quickly learned the power and importance of taking a breath before speaking. Sometimes this makes family members nervous and they say, “You can say it, it’s ok, what are you thinking?” Then I have to explain that I’m not trying to hide anything, I just want to give them a thoughtful answer.

I hate not being an expert at something. It’s a flaw of mine. But one thing this job has taught me is that you don’t need an answer to every question. I often consider why I chose this work. Ultimately, I became a social worker to fix problems. But that’s not my role. My role is to guide people on the path and point out the landmarks along the way. I don’t have to have all the answers. Which is a relief, because some questions, like how much time is left, aren’t answerable. Once I got comfortable with that, I stopped trying to be the most knowledgeable person in the room and worked on being the calmest. What our patients and clients really need is someone to be still and hear them. Which honestly, may be what we all need: not an answer, but someone to sit with us and witness and tell us that we are doing the right thing.