This Is Us

Three Magical Phrases to Comfort a Dying Person

We will all face painful moments sitting next to dying people. What can we say?

Jenny Harrington
Human Parts
Published in
10 min readMar 9, 2019
Illustration: Jialun Deng

AtAt 3 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, death announced it was coming for him. He was only eight years old; his cancer cells were not responding to treatment anymore. His body’s leukemic blast cell counts were doubling daily. Bone marrow was no longer making red or white blood cells, not even platelets. The marrow was only churning out cancer cells. In a process similar to churning butter, his blood was thickening with homogenous, malicious content: cancer. And like churning butter, it was exhausting work. The battered remnants of his healthy self were beaten down by chemo. And yet, every fiber pressed on.

He was so very tired. You could see it in his eyes. At the same time, you could see his love. His love for life was front and center. His love for sweetness crystalized on his tongue in the taste of sun-soaked strawberries. His love for satisfaction could be heard in the snapping sound of a puzzle piece set in place. His love for the simple, soothing smells of lavender emanating from a medicine ball was cherished, as was the fact that he could still hold a ball in his hands. He loved life down to the core, as only an eight-year-old can, and he was doing everything he could to stay alive.

Death was easy to detect. It was right under our eyes, sending the simplest of signals. No appetite. Breathing strained. Cold hands and feet, meaning compromised blood flow. Ankles swollen. Standing up was becoming nearly impossible. His body was shutting down. But it was his temperature that told us the landslide of disease was accelerating and about to swallow us whole.

At 3 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, his temperature was 107.2 degrees.

Doctors and nurses clustered outside of his hospital room. The cluster grew. The murmurs increased. My concern intensified. We had spent enough time at the hospital to know when a situation was escalating. I was not surprised when I was quietly summoned out of the room. As the sliding door closed behind me, I found myself in the center of the humming cluster. Bustling, shuffling chaos encircled me. The attending oncologist, at the center of the group, was…



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Jenny Harrington
Human Parts

Author, researcher, mother living on an island near Seattle. Now, notably, an international bunny smuggler. Find her struggles and snuggles at