This is the first year I’ve not faced this dilemma as my amazing Dad passed away last month (you can read his eulogy here if you’re interested) but I’ve noticed that a post I wrote a couple years ago What do you buy a dying man for his birthday? has had a lot of interest recently and so I thought I’d up date it and offer some ideas.
If you are reading this because you have to buy a present for someone who is dying, please accept my sympathies. If you’re reading it because you are trying to buy for a man who doesn’t want anything, please accept my sympathies. In fact if you’re reading this for any reason that involves present buying, please accept my sympathies. I’m not a natural shopper, I don’t find buying pressies for the men in my life particularly easy, never have done. The fact that someone you love is dying is hard to face, Christmas present shopping (at least before I took the online shopping approach) is just as hard. Christmas present buying for someone who is dying is doubly hard, at least.
Don’t panic though, I have a couple of thoughts and some practical advice and ideas to offer if you’re interested….
Firstly, it really doesn’t matter. I know it means a lot to you, I know you care (otherwise why are you reading this), but it’s for those reasons that it doesn’t really matter what you get or do. In the big scheme of things exchanging gifts is either something done out of duty, or something that you do to show you care….so don’t focus so much on the ‘what should I get’, and don’t over think it. I’m reasonably confident that the person you are buying for will be flattered that you bothered to think of them at all.
Secondly, the things that most people value are the things that you can’t buy, or that take thought but not too much money. Spending time together, compiling photo albums, reminiscing, being on the end of a phone or email. My Dad took as much enjoyment from a hand crafted picture from my niece as he would have from any expensive present.
OK, I get it, this isn’t helping, you know all this but what present should you buy?
I think there are a range of options and only you will know what works for your person. Work your way through these categories and see if anything grabs ya:
1. What they like – just ignore the fact they’re dying I’m not being sarcastic. My Dad was always hard to buy for because he never really bothered with possessions, so this dilemma was heightened by his terminal diagnosis but it wasn’t entirely new. So on the occasions we carried on as normal we brought him sweets, books, slippers and socks. If they like a flutter think of lottery tickets, scratch cards, or a bet. After all Christmas is still Christmas.
2. Make something This is a little in keeping with the earlier thoughts. Buying a box of chocolate brownies from Tesco may not be up there on the top of the thoughtful present list, but handmade double chocolate brownies in a nice box, tied with a ribbon, goes a long way. Depending on the situation the person you’re buying for may not be able to eat, but making anything is a winner. How about a collage of photos, pictures and drawings.
3. Gather memories We all know we’re dying if we stop to think about it long enough, and I think it’s a human instinct to want to preserve memories and history. My Dad got very interested in ancestry in the last year of his life, strangely he was focusing on my Gran’s family rather than his own, but he did seem to get very into it. Perhaps you could consider a present along that line, or make up a history book with blank spaces for the person to fill in and leave behind. My Dad recorded some of his earliest memories, from before he met Mum, and they’ve been great to read….he wasn’t an academic man, and sure there are spelling mistakes and the grammar is rusty, but it is sooo Dad, and is a lovely record to have.
4. Give connection This is a really powerful one if you can pull it off. I’m not sure whether it was last Christmas or the one before, but my brother and his girlfriend bought my parents a wifi photo frame. My Mum wasn’t sure about it at the time, and it was a hassle because brother had to arrange for them to get wifi fitted to use it. That said, if I could buy one present only for someone in Dad’s situation again, it would be to get one. It brought so much joy to my parents as each of us kids sent them photos from wherever we were in the world, it was a talking point and a memory box all in one, and by the time Dad was unable to leave his bed it was a complete lifeline – I wrote about it here. You don’t need technology to do it either, there are numerous postcard apps now that allow you to send your photos for printing as postcards, with a message, to arrive a few days later – a little less instant, but equally well received when we tried them out on holiday.
5. Entertainment I’m not sure that this would work for everyone, but if there is one constant with healthcare and illness, it’s time spent waiting. So any presents that fill that gap are worthwhile – if your person is a reader then you could go for books, book vouchers, a kindle (they’re much easier to hold for long periods than a heavy book and the charge lasts for ages); if they like music how about an ipod, or a CD, or an audiobook; if they are likely to remain in one place you can think bigger/longer term/less portable – puzzles and a bed board, model kits, crafting – whatever they like, but beware fine motor skills; you could also go for films or DVDs, but if they’re in a shared space don’t forget the headphones that make it more bearable for everyone else!
6. Help others There are numerous schemes around nowadays that allow you to donate to charity, or gift a practical present/tool/piece of equipment to someone who needs it more. You can sponsor children, adopt an animal, or lend money to a new enterprise. Any of these gifts put the focus on the longer term which may well be welcomed by someone facing the end of their life. I’m not sure as I didn’t get one of these for Dad, but I can see that some people might like it.
7. Give blood Finally, and arguably more importantly, there is something that you can get them at no cost except your own time. Something that could benefit them, and many others. You could give blood. My Dad received numerous transfusions through the course of his illness. In his last few months, he was kept alive and enabled a good death with the support of 44 strangers who donated the 44 units of blood that he received. If you really want to give something amazing this Christmas, click this link and register to donate blood, you could change someones life forever. If you’re not in the UK then try the American Red Cross site for more info.
I’ll end by returning to my earlier point, it really doesn’t matter. Spend time, let the person know you care, reassure them that you’ll be around to support their friends and family when they’re gone, remember them, take lots of photos (I gave up avoiding the camera once we knew Dad was terminally ill and I’m so glad that we all feature in photos and I wasn’t always hiding behind the lens), carry on as normal, acknowledge life isn’t normal, just be yourself and do your best….and remember to enjoy Christmas. I hope you find the gift you’re looking for and have a happy and healthy festive season.