I was eight years old when my maternal grandfather died. He was a thousand miles away in Chicago, and I barely knew him. I learned about his death when I discovered my mother packing a suitcase. She told me she was going to Chicago because grandfather was dying, or already dead. I’m still not clear about this, because it was such a nonevent. My mother returned a week later and that was that. I don’t remember any real conversation about how he died. My mother was a stoic, so she appeared unaffected by his death. Looking back, I’m sure she was deeply affected, because she idolized her father.
This was my first lesson in death. Like everyone else, my first death experience taught me how to feel and treat death for the rest of my life: The best way to deal with death is with distance and pragmatism.
When I was 23 years old my father died from pancreatic cancer. This was the single most important event in my life. Although I was determined to treat my father’s death with distance and stoic pragmatism, my whole life changed with that event. There were only six weeks between his diagnosis and his death, barely giving me time to cope with the shock. The cancer had taken his pancreas and was in his liver, so his oncologist carefully told him how to avoid an overdose of his morphine, thereby telling him exactly what he needed to do not only to ease his pain but also to end his life. I was not with him when he died, but three weeks before he died, he managed to fly to Colorado where I lived to spend three days with me and say good-bye. The last time I saw my father, he was sitting in a first class seat on a United Airlines flight headed for Chicago. He wanted to fly in comfort for his last flight home, a metaphor I’ve always liked.
Thanks to my attempts at distance and pragmatism, I was in no way prepared for the grief that hit me over the next two years. I spun in a wild collection of emotions: anger, deep grief with a touch of hysteria. Without a doubt I was influenced in my grief by the death of my two beloved childhood dogs and my cat in the two years preceding my dad’s death. My gratitude for my friends and, in particular, my stepmother, Marlene, is beyond measure.
My next lesson in dying and death: Distance is only a temporary defense measure, and pragmatism only helps in arranging events like the memorial service and closing personal affairs. The real work cannot be put off forever.
Twenty years later, I was with my mother as she ended her 30-year struggle with multiple sclerosis. My two older brothers and I had taken turns caring for her as her disease made her sicker. I had primary care for her the last four years of her life. The pain of watching her body slowly disintegrate over those 30 years was nothing compared to the pain I felt while watching her mind disintegrate over the last year. My maternal uncle’s unexpected death alone in his apartment the day before my mother’s death was a cruel shock that deepened my family’s grief and pain.
While my father’s death was sudden and shocking, my mother’s death was one I had prepared for and anticipated for many years. I felt relief when her suffering was over. Yes, I experienced shock, but not to the degree I had 20 years prior. I also felt guilt with my mom’s death, guilt fed by thoughts that I could have done more to relieve her suffering, guilt that I could have been more patient with her as I balanced my family and career commitments. I could have made her death easier, I thought, as all her medical decisions were my responsibility. My father had never relinquished control over his medical decisions, thereby intentionally choosing the circumstances of his death once he accepted his prognosis. My mother’s circumstances were my decision, but I was guided by her thoughts from years of conversations we had with each other.
My parents’ deaths were very different, yet there were similarities. Death has its common human experience in the realm of emotions: loss, guilt, shock, fear, loneliness, anger, pity, relief. Tender and raw moments follow a death, moments that bring us together into the depths of the human journey. It is what bonds us in compassion and sympathy. Compassion and sympathy made my mother’s death a healthier process than my father’s. I was prepared as much as anyone can be, and I was open to being helped and loved by my family and my church members. My gratitude for them is beyond measure.
My mother’s death gave me another important lesson in death: Despite our best efforts to shroud ourselves in illusions of independence, this journey from birth to death is not done alone. Yet, when we face the final moments of death, each of us must enter it alone, leaving the stunning beauty of life behind as we enter the unknown. It is the ultimate act of faith.