A Tale of Two Deaths
I have experienced the death of two people with whom I had a close relationship. One occurred almost fifteen years ago, and one occurred last month. Although there were some interesting similarities between the two events, there were also significant differences.
My husband’s was the first death. He had never been sick during our marriage until he had a rare form of cancer that was untouched by chemotherapy or surgery. His death was tragic, and continues to leave its mark on my life and those of our children.
The second death was not tragic. My friend died last month at the age of 93. We first met twenty years ago and became friends through our active involvement in a women’s educational philanthropy.
I was able to speak with both of these dear people right before they died, so the actual time and date of each of their deaths was a surprise to me. I find it curious that death can be sudden and unexpected even when you know it’s going to happen.
In my husband’s case, our heart bonding time was between eleven p.m. and midnight every night, after the kids were asleep, and I had completed the duties that coping with a chronic illness required. He died one morning moments after I did my first check-in.
I spoke with my friend just before she died. Years ago, she asked me to serve as her Agent under her Advance Health Care Directive. (I was not her attorney, so there was no conflict of interest.) Later in life, she lived in an assisted living facility, and had caregivers who were with her during most of the daytime to assist her with her meals and ambulation. One day, her caregiver called me to tell me she wasn’t feeling well. I called my friend to see if she wanted me to schedule a doctor’s appointment although she generally was adamantly opposed to doctor visits. She told me that she didn’t want the caregiver to bother me and then hung up. The caregiver called back twenty minutes later to tell me that my friend had stopped breathing. I rushed to her apartment, arriving along with the paramedics, but she was gone by the time we arrived.
Coincidentally, both my husband and my friend are buried in the same cemetery. My husband and I did not have any preset funeral arrangements or prepaid plots because we were young with small children and did not expect death to come so soon. My friend, however, was fully prepared. She had made the arrangements with the mortuary and cemetery years before I ever met her. As her Agent under her Advance Health Care Directive, I had the legal authority to be sure that her arrangements were carried out as she planned.
BENEFITS OF PREPAID EXPENSES
Having the mortuary and cemetery expenses paid in advance made it extremely easy to carry out her wishes. The mortuary removed her from the assisted living facility, on a Saturday, and I met with them on the following Tuesday to sign the paperwork my friend had arranged. The mortuary put me in touch with the cemetery staff and I was asked which day I wanted for her burial. So on the chosen day, I was able to say my final good-bye. My friend’s brother had died twenty-five years before she did and she had chosen to be buried in his grave which was next to their parents’ graves. So I was not surprised to see that she had already had a headstone engraved with everything but the year of her death. There were no decisions I had to make in this whole process. I had not personally experienced this situation before, and now that I understand how easy it is for those left behind when the arrangements have been made and paid for, I urge you to consider doing the same so that your loved ones do not have to make those kind of decisions when they are grieving.
I have some clients who have very definite ideas about what they want to happen at either their funeral or their memorial service. They have selected the music, the instruments, the location of the service, the person to conduct the service, and meaningful poems or religious excerpts. Some have planned where they want their ashes scattered or in which cemetery they want to be buried. I have one client who has written down the names of the songs she wants sung to her if it is known that she is actively dying.
There are volunteers I have met through a local grief counseling organization whose members have some hymns and other songs practiced so that they can go to the bedside of a dying person and sing to them when they are near then end of their life.
There are also folks who make a living in assisting terminally ill patients and their families make the transition from life to death. These folks not only help those who are actively dying, but also those who will be left behind. In some cases, they have been able to work out issues between siblings and other family members so that the siblings can still have a relationship with one another after the terminally ill patient has died, something which might not have happened without outside intervention.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
There is a great deal of room for improvement on how we as a society deal with the fact of death and help people cope and grieve with those who are dying and who have experienced the death of someone close to them.
My experience as a young, grieving widow was not unique. I endured condescension, platitudes, and patronizing comments from friends and strangers when what I really wanted was to hear them say, “yes, it is sad, and difficult, and hard to understand”, and to show some real depth of feeling.
So many people wanted me to “get over it” (as if I could) or, at least, stop showing my feelings after a couple of months. It is often difficult to witness someone else in grief and distress. Instead, people generally want to pretend there is no grief, or to cover up those intense feelings so that they themselves are not made uncomfortable by witnessing the emotion. Yet, acknowledging a person’s grief and its accompanying pain can help the griever heal.