We lose friends and acquaintances and people we’ve never met daily to metastatic cancers. Many of us talk about how we are often scared to open social media because of how often we see notices of hospice or decline or death. Some of the last pictures of people we love are horrifying. The suffering we see not only affects us as human beings but also because we see our own future in others’ experiences.
When those of us who are connected to someone who is nearing death are far away physically, there is a general feeling of helplessness. Usually, a family member has taken over posting on social media on the patient’s behalf and, usually, that family member is simply informing. Whether we want to participate or not, the general norm is that the immediate family circles the wagons around their loved one.
All those of us outside that immediate circle can do is bear witness.
To bear witness is one of those phrases that feels familiar and yet remains elusive. The dictionary meaning feels a bit unsatisfactory:
Bear witness (idiom)
1: to show that something exists or is true—+ to His success bears witness to the value of hard work. Rising ticket sales bear witness to the band’s popularity.
2 (formal) : to make a statement saying that one saw or knows something asked to bear witness to the facts. She was accused of bearing false witness at the trial.https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bear%20witness
Generally, I think of bearing witness to be a silent endeavor, passive. And yet the definition makes it clear that there can also be active participation. As a lawyer, I often called witnesses to the stand to testify under oath to what they knew, to bear witness to their own experiences or observations or, when it came to experts, to opine as to their conclusions. That testimony could often change the outcome of a trial, could be persuasive enough to sway the decision maker.
Outside of the formality of a legal proceeding, there are other examples of bearing witness. In my own religious tradition, followers of Christ are exhorted to bear witness of His teachings in their lives as well as direct communication. There’s a great article about bearing witness in this context you can access here.
But what does it mean to bear witness in the context of the MBC community?
First, I think it is hard but necessary to honor the wishes of the immediate family. Each family has their own traditions and sometimes the wider community is excluded for a variety of reasons. This can be excruciatingly hard for those of us who love their loved one from afar. This is where the concept of disenfranchised grief can create intense struggles. I have personally struggled quite a bit with this and the blog post I linked in the previous sentence has some of the ways I’ve learned to cope.
Second, connecting with the immediate family of the person who has died can be helpful. Sharing stories and communication from the loved one can be a way that the MBC community can bear witness to the life and death of the loved one. This interaction can be cathartic to the family and the wider MBC community. Again, the desire to engage or not is something that I believe should be left to the family to decide. I do think that it can be important for the family to see and experience how much their loved one meant to others. Additionally, we often share more freely in the MBC support groups than with others because of the shared experience. Family members can get to know a different side of their loved one when engaging with the cancer community where their loved one was treasured.
Third, we can remember and talk about the person who has died among ourselves. One thing that has really helped me is the MBC Grieving Together Facebook group that I help to moderate with a dear friend who is a grief therapist. We’d hoped to bring this concept into the physical with fixed or traveling memorial/remembrances; however, the pandemic has affected that endeavor. As I mentioned above, we often know our comrades in suffering on a different level than those without cancer. Remembering them and how they have touched our lives or shared their heart is helpful.
Fourth, we can bear witness to the people we have lost by ensuring that their memory is kept alive through advocacy, that they get credit or attribution for their efforts and their legacy. One really meaningful way I’ve seen this happen in real life is how the GRASP Cancer events highlight and honor different advocates who were focused on research advocacy. Their pictures and stories remind us all of why we are there and why research is important. This also brings particular elements of the MBC experience alive to researchers who may never have direct contact with the patients their research affects.
Fifth, we can take what we have seen from the experiences of others and consider how we might want to instruct our immediate families. While I do realize it is hard to think about our own death, creating a plan and leaving instructions, even prepaying for our burial or funeral arrangements can create a sense of peace. I’ve written before about how the differences between how each of my grandfathers planned their remembrances created different levels of work for the family left behind. I believe it is an act of love for our families when we think and plan ahead so that burden is not left on their shoulders.
To be born and to die are the bookends of this human experience. We celebrate and plan for birth and there are many who bear witness to how and when we enter the world. As I grow older and as I enter the 6th year of this MBC experience, death and how we leave this world has become a concept that I often ruminate on. If we think about and plan for and bear witness of the end of life in a similar way, and with a similar focus as we enter life, how much more meaningful can this transition be for all of us?
And in the mean time, we can still find meaning in bearing witness to the lives and deaths of others.