Cheerful topic, Yes? No? Halloween is really over. Some of you might have heard but I had some sudden news; that while I was in Houston, basking in the glow of Story Masters and the font of all knowledge, back in San Diego my dear half-sister Patty, died. She had been dealing with cancer for over eight years. I got word from my other sister, Betty who told me that when Patty found out that both Chemo and Radiation were no longer working, that the cancer had metastasized to too many places in her body, she decided to stop taking any medication. She got together with her children, put all of her financial affairs in order, contacted Hospice and let nature take its course. What a truly brave woman.
We need to talk about death and dying because as a culture and a country we waste so much money and effort in the Cult of Denying Death. I’m sure somewhere in hospital beds across the country, there are older Americans whose bodies are being kept alive by machines, at the insistence of children, wracked with guilt, who want the doctors to do everything they can to keep grandma or grandpa alive. It saddens me because that doesn’t have to happen. There are so many tools available for us so we won’t have to be a burden to our loved ones. Do you have a will? If not, write one. Do you have an Advanced Health Care Directive, also known as a Living Will? That is the legal document that tells your doctor, your family, how you want to spend your last days. You can ask that the doctors do every heroic measure you can think of to keep you going. Or, you can say “no thanks” and be brave live my sister and trust that nature’s course is the right one. Look into Hospice care; find out what your options are.
I’m taking the time to write about this because I’ve seen death done, how I consider the correct way: where you decide ahead of time how you want it handled. And I’ve seen it bungled, where grief-stricken, shocked family members find themselves having to make decisions that no one should have to make. Trust me, you don’t want to inflict this kind of pain and heartache on the ones you love.
It is the season for it, with autumn and shorter days, as we prepare for winter, it is a time when many people chose to let go. My father died on November 10, 2002. Now might not seem like it, but why not use it as an opportunity to to talk about dying. Today is Veteran’s Day, when we remember veterans who gave their lives willingly for us, why not ask the question: how do you want to die? When the time comes, I want to die sitting on a bench looking at a garden. I realize it doesn’t have to be my own garden, but any garden. Any place where green things grow and thrive, where they are well taken care of.
Turn to the one you love and tell them that you are going to be there for them, to change their diaper and spoon feed them if you have to. That you are in this relationship for the truly long haul. It might make you feel weepy, but really, isn’t that what love is all about? That you are willing to do whatever it takes to make your loved one’s death as smooth, easy, gentle and loving as best you can? And be brave enough to ask them to do the same for you. If you can do that, then your relationship will grow richer, and be fuller.
I was honored enough to be at my father’s bedside when he took his last breath. I had my hand on his chest and felt his last heartbeat. It was, and still remains one of the most treasured moments of my life on this planet. It was transcendent of any other experience I have ever had. I treasure my father for the life he gave me and for the blessings of a most gentle, peaceful death. That’s what I want for my end.
Yes, it sucks to think of death, it’s sad, it often feels like such a waste. But we owe it to ourselves and the ones we love to be honest about this most natural of acts. After my father died, a close family friend said I ought to write “Death and Dying for Dummies” as there is no handbook for this sort of thing. My advice is that we spend so much time figuring out how to live life to the fullest, we ought to give our death a little bit of attention, and in doing so, life becomes so much sweeter.
Thank you all for dropping by and indulging me. What do you worry about the most when you think of your last days? I’d like to hear from you, as the more we feel comfortable talking about, I do believe we will be better off as a community.
What a beautiful and brave post Rachel! Thank you for writing it and raising this important issue. I am so sorry for the loss of your sister, but it sounds like she was indeed a very brave woman. I admire her for her courage and you for yours.
I’ve only known death of the bungled kind, and trust me when I say that I agree that we need to talk about this more openly to prevent even more pain and suffering that is already inherent in dealing with the death of loved ones.
I’m sorry for your loss, but what a beautiful tribute to your sister. Life and death are inevitable for all of us. How much better is it that we make decisions about how we want to approach our deaths? Thank you for being strong enough to share your thoughts on this very important topic.
I’m sorry for the loss of your sister. What a brave soul, the way she handled her last days. I think Hospice is wonderful. They’re so helpful and are such a godsend.
But I have to confess that I hate death, hate it when my mom talks about the arrangements she’s made for my dad and herself. I especially hate it when young people die. I’m a super big wuss when it comes to dealing with death and I don’t think about how I want to die. Sometimes when I hear a favorite song, I’ll tell a loved one that I want that to be played at my funeral, but that’s about the extent of it. Maybe because I have so many heavy things to deal with in my life right now, I can’t deal with another sad, depressing issue. A person can only endure so many losses at a time before they break. So when the time is right, I’ll deal with it, but not now.
I think that dealing with a loss and the stages of grief and understanding them are just as important as getting our affairs in order because even when there isn’t technically a “death” in our lives, there are losses in many forms that throw us into mourning once again, and we don’t even realize that’s what’s happening. Frankly, it really sucks, but it’s part of life and dealing with it can make us stronger so we can help other people through their periods of mourning and sorrow.
This post is well done, Rachel. You handled such a difficult topic very graciously.
I am sorry to hear that you are going through a lot right now. But it is times like these that help us understand how strong we are. I heard something a long time ago that said, each soul is only given as much of a burden as it can bear. I know you have what it takes to get through this challenging time. Best wishes to you dear.
Such a poignant post, Rachel. I’m so sorry for the loss of your sister. I know she’d be proud of you for this and much more. You’re so right; death is part of all of our lives and one deserving of utmost respect.
Love to you and yours. Keep writing & inspiring us!
I’m sorry you lost your sister, Rachel, but I’m glad she had a say in how she went. Like Lynn, I hate death, hate talking and thinking about it. Thank you for tackling the subject so thoughtfully,
I know this is a really uncomfortable topic for people to broach, but in the long run, it just makes things so much easier if people are just willing to even start a simple conversation. I knew I was going out on a limb here, and I’m so glad you took the time to stop by and post a comment. Thank you.
I’m old, plenty old enough to know that I’ll be dead sooner rather than later.
This class that many of us are working through leaves me thinking more about growing old than about writing blogs. Most class participants seem so young to me, young enough to be planning careers. Young enough to believe that careers matter. I once felt that way, too. Nowadays I understand that the notions we name careers are like the fantasies that together we call security. They exist inside our minds. They are, as such, frail foundations on which to build dreams.
Please permit me pedantry for a few more seconds. Please let me tell you this: You will not be here to watch anyone reading your blog or your novel when you are dead. So write for yourself first and foremost. And be your own guru. There is no right way to write a blog. There is no wrong way to write a blog.
And yes, I have the living will and the advanced directive. And yes, again, death frightens me more than anything else on life’s menu.
Pain is my second biggest fear, so just put me down if my death comes that way.
My greatest fear? I do not believe in a god, in an afterlife, or in a legacy. Legacies are what the living who remain like to name memories and histories for sake of self-comfort; and those legacies are riddled with well-intentioned errors.
My atoms will be dispersed. My mind will no longer exist. I fear the loss of my mind more than that of my body.
I lost one of my brothers almost two years ago. He was smart. He was lovely, and he was arrogant (so are you, you say?).
He is gone. Just plain gone.
Thanks for your comments and I would just add a couple things, that one, your brother lives on in you, as long as you cherish those memories, he is “alive” in you. You can still bask in the glow of the good times you shared. In that sense my father is still alive for me, every time I sit down to write, because he was the one who always told me, “you ought to be a writer, you are really good at it.”
As for your own health, I can say that is the one great thing about Hospice, is that they understand that EVERYONE’s biggest fear is dying in pain, and pain management is something they take care of right up front. Back in the day, they didn’t want people to get “hooked” on the heavy-duty pain killers, like morphine. Now, they realize, heck, give them what they need to ease their suffering and it makes dying that much easier.
As for legacies and well-intentioned errors, it’s another reminder to be here now, you have no idea about “the undiscovered country” so live your most authentic life, today.
I am so sorry for your loss Rachel. Your sister made a hard and brave choice. I remember when it got down to that point with my father and it was between quality and quantity of life. He chose quality. Thankfully I was there with him for his last breath, although the timing was unexpected. And he was not in a hospital or hospice. I was present to tell the MT’s “No” when the question of resuscitation came up.
I am not averse to discussing death. Maybe because it has played such a large role in my life; I have probably lost more than my fair share of family and friends over the years. I have been down this road many times. My husband knows exactly what I want done when I die, although he looks at me like I am crazy to think I’ll go first. But I know death does not discriminate by age. So just in case, it’s important that he be informed. I could care less about a service. That stuff is for the living. I do not fear death for I know the energy that we are now will continue on. I have a very strong faith. But like Anthony, I would prefer to avoid any pain. Not crazy about that. So if there’s pain, let’s hope it passes quickly.
Thanks for the post, and for reminding us of all the details we should stay on top of. Although they aren’t pretty they are important.
This post touched me deeply. I do agree that this is a subject that must be explored, gently, and respectfully. We also need to talk (and listen) about this with those who are grieving. Pain shared is pain halved. We are group oriented creatures, and as a group we can help each other.
Have no fear of death, it is only one more step on the journey.
Thanks for writing about such a tough topic. My mother recently made a living will and it seemed so strange to me. She is not old enough to be thinking of dying. But, she has always been a planner, and always thought about all things financial. So in that case it makes sense. When I looked at the legal document it seemed kind of vague to me. Yes, I am not a lawyer, but both of my parents are so I grew up hearing legalize as a normal language. I was happy to see that I have a lot of say in what happens to her, too. Sometimes it’s about who is left behind and whether or not they are ready to let go.
What a beautiful and informative post, Rachel. thanks for including us in this journey of yours. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers a couple of years ago. the doctor asked her to complete a personal directive. I helped her and she signed it. (My brother handles her finances and I handle everything else.) In the process I realized I’m not different than my mother. I’m single and I need to complete the same documents, just in case. So I did, then gave both of my kids a copy. I do have a will but you reminded me I need to update it.
we need to talk about death. We need to prepare for the inevitability of it, since it’s going to be part of each of our lives.
have a great day
Good for you that you’ve taken those steps for your mom and yourself. It just makes it so much easier for everyone.
A good post for everyone to ponder! Emma made a very poignant remark when she said “Sometimes it’s about who is left behind and whether or not they are ready to let go.” Death is about those left behind. The dead are done. They’ve moved on…they are now dealing with a whole new playing field (sorry Anthony doesn’t believe that but I do so I’m going with my own set of beliefs…which is all any of us can do anyway!).
The biggest thing to consider when pondering our own end is how we can make it easier for those left behind. I don’t want our kids fighting over stuff and decisions. So, preparations should be done to make it clear how you want your things divided and how you want your body handled (pull the plug or not? cremation or not?). I lost an aunt and uncle recently. My aunt died first. She told my uncle what she wanted but not her children (they didn’t have any kids together). Her kids didn’t want to honor the wishes my uncle declared their mother wanted. They thought he must not have it right, that maybe he didn’t remember clearly what she wanted. It created a lot of strain on the family. When he died a few months later (they both died unexpectedly in their sleep) we went through the same problem. After all the fuss about the handling of my aunts death, the only thing he made clear was he didn’t want a funeral. Now, as to that…a funeral is not for the deceased. It is for those left behind. I don’t think we have the right to tell our loved ones how to deal with their grief. Funerals are a celebration of memories for the one who has passed. It is how we honor the life just lost. It offers closure and a way to say “I love you, goodbye”.
The fighting that can happen is mostly over THINGS … property, possessions, animals and money … and the handling of the body. So put those issues to rest by making it clear what you want and WRITE IT DOWN. The law will ensure your wishes are met if problems arise.
Thanks for posting on this issue!! Blessings.
I’m so sorry to hear about the situation with you aunt and uncle, but that is sorta why I wrote the post, there is enough stress and grief to deal with when someone dies, to pile on family drama and politics on top of does no one any good. It does amaze me too, that in handling death, people really show their true colors, sad to say. And as for funerals, they are for the living and it does help, I’ve been so some great memorial services, the one we had for my dad was very touching. We were able to pull of an illegal (it was not performed on hallowed ground) 21-Gun salute for my dad. It’s something that we still talk about today.
I appreciate your astute thoughts and insights into this taboo topic. You are absolutely right on about our cult of death avoidance. As Otto Rank once said “We try to avoid the debt of death by refusing the loan of life”. This means that we don’t really fully embrace life in our efforts to try to avoid thinking about our own mortality. I think we end up paying a steep price for this denial of death (Ernest Becker’s book) as a culture – which explains the manic quality of life as we know it.
Such a beautiful, moving post, Rachel. Thank you so much for sharing your stories! I agree 100% that as a country we need to start having discussions on death and dying.
Working in an ICU I often saw death up close. There is definitely a peaceful way and a traumatic way to end your days. Planning in advance helps ease that transition.
Wonderful, wonderful post!
Thanks so much for stopping and by and for sharing this on your facebook page. As someone on the front lines, you know how important planning for the inevitable can be.
I’m sorry for your loss, Rachel. Thanks for sharing this with us. This is a topic that should be discussed more. Even though I understand this is a personal decision, I admire those who face death on their own terms. If I’m in this situation someday, I hope to be as brave as Patty.