I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. -- Oliver Sacks on learning he had only months to live
When my mother was 90, I asked her if she was afraid of death. "No," she answered, "But I do worry about something. I've become so forgetful, I'm afraid that on the day I'm supposed to die, I'll forget." I am grateful that my parents were comfortable talking about death, even joking about it!
I'm hoping death is the next taboo subject our culture becomes more comfortable discussing. It doesn't help that the medical establishment has as its goal preventing death... at almost any cost. My late husband Gene, a physician himself, felt that much of modern medicine had lost its respect for death. He and I talked about how we wanted to live and also how we wanted to die. We each made a power of attorney for healthcare, and prepaid for funeral arrangements. I was very grateful for those conversations and preparations when Gene had a second heart attack. Three of his doctor buddies came to me, begging to do a heroic operation to keep him alive.The monitors were flat. Gene would have hated living in a compromised state. I said "no" to his young doctor friends, who later told me they were amazed. Though grief-stricken at that moment, I was guided by Gene's deep respect for death as a natural part of life.
Responding to the death of others
The impetus for focusing on death in this blog was the recent death of Sallie Davis, one of my dearest friends for 25 years. I am holding two warring emotions about Sallie's death: grateful she's not struggling to breathe any longer, and missing her deeply. I was comforted as Sallie's whole family gathered and celebrated her life, telling inspiring and funny stories. The youngest family member was 2 weeks old. I FELT Sallie's legacy. I posted a picture of Sallie and me on FaceBook and was touched by the outpouring of support.
When someone dies, we are often at a loss for words. Roger, a recently widowed friend, told me he'd read and reread the cards people sent. Every Hallmark word seemed especially for him, and each little story about his wife was a gift. He regretted he'd never been a sender of cards, and resolved to change that.
After Gene died, two people did things that had an extraordinary impact. Several weeks after Gene died, my friend Tina offered to listen to stories about Gene for as long as I wanted to talk. Hungrily I accepted, and shared how we met, the ups and downs of our courtship, funny stories, difficulties; we laughed and cried together. After 2.5 hours, I was peaceful. Another precious gesture came when, nine months after Gene died, my colleague Judy sent me a book I still treasure, Safe Passage, Words to Help the Grieving Hold Fast and Let Go. In all outward ways, I had mourned, and was living my life well. But the hole in my heart was still huge, and Judy's acknowledgement of that touched me deeply.
Talking about death
There are signs that the taboo against talking about death is breaking down. Have you heard of Death Cafes, where people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death? The objective, as stated on their website, deathcafe.com, is "to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives."
Facing our own death
Which brings us full circle from death to life. Three years ago I faced death up close and personal, when I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. I was successfully treated, and the biggest impact is that I am more engaged in life. Being so engaged in life helps me have a friendlier relationship with death. I want to die without regrets, to be able to feel, with my dying breath, that I've loved well, that I've expressed what's in my heart to people I care about, and that I've made a difference. I will look for humor in things, right to the end. I pray that when the time comes, I can embrace death as wholeheartedly as I have lived.
My hope is that you will nurture a friendly relationship with death without having to receive a dreaded diagnosis. And that it will help you will live fully until your final moment!
1. How friendly is your relationship with death?
2. How do you respond to those who have just lost a loved one?
3. Do you have a living will?
4. Look into prearranged funeral insurance. It will be such a gift to your loved ones.
5. How will being friendlier with death help you live more fully?