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How do You Feel About Death

©Brenda Coffee. All rights reserved.

Death is something we try to outrun our entire lives and yet, ‘what happens when we die’ is the one question to which no one has the exact answer. In her award-winning book, This Republic of Suffering, Death and the American Civil War, Drew Faust, President of Harvard University, writes that people in the 19th Century talked about death more than we do, thereby keeping it in the forefront of their mind. She says we, in the modern age, avoid talking about death at all costs, and because we don’t keep our end time in sight, we don’t live the best lives we could. Since I have encountered the deaths of so many loved ones, I agree with Ms. Faust.

Last week the online cancer community lost a cherished friend and blogger, Sarah Sadtler Feather, aka “The Carcinista.” Her last post, less than two weeks before she died, informed her friends and readers that because she valued quality of life, she was stopping treatment to spend the time she had left with her family. Sarah’s last post has triggered numerous online and private discussions about death. I sometimes think those of us who’ve received a cancer diagnosis are not as afraid to talk about death as those who are healthy. I also believe healthy people don’t want to hear our thoughts about death, much less know what to say to us when that time comes. Perhaps people don’t want to get too close to death for fear they might “get some of it on them.” When I was in my 20s, I had a friend who was so afraid of death that he drove blocks out of his way to avoid an old cemetery near his apartment. He was the first person I knew who was that phobic about death. Now that I’m older, and death has crossed my path many times, I realize he is not alone.

Several years after I married James, I learned an ex-boyfriend was dying of lung cancer. I’d last seen “the boyfriend from Hell” when the police escorted him from my home after he violated a protection order. As fears for my safety increased, the Sheriff loaned me his shotgun and for several days, posted a bodyguard outside my door. Even though the last time I’d seen my former boyfriend, he was being stuffed into a police car, when I heard about his cancer diagnosis, I asked James if he would mind if I called him. I remember the first thing I said to the ex: “What have you gotten yourself into now?” He laughed and said he didn’t know. The next day I went to the hospital where I learned his newly diagnosed lung cancer had already metastasized to his brain. When his doctors forbid him to drive, I took him to some of his chemo treatments, helped him grocery shop, and when he and his family couldn’t bring themselves to ask “How long does he have,” I was the one who had that conversation with his doctors, then with him and his family.

The day before he died, his friend called and asked me to come. “You’re so good with him,” she said. “He’s always better after you leave.” When I arrived, his eyes were closed and the blankets were pulled up under his chin. His head was covered in a ski cap. I drew up a chair alongside his bed and sat down. For two hours I held his hand and talked to him, reminiscing about trips we’d taken and things we’d done.

“Remember when we drove to Memphis in that wicked rainstorm while we listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland?” His hand lightly stirred in mine. I wondered if it was a coincidence, or if he could hear me, so I kept talking. “Remember the time we windsurfed around the oil tanker, and the wind died when the sun went down? We paddled for hours in the dark. I wasn’t sure we’d ever reach that light on the beach.” Again his hand moved, but this time, I was sure he’d heard me.

The night before, his brother and sister had arrived from out of town and some of his friends were there, but none of them were comfortable being in the same room with him. He was home, the place where he’d lived and where he would soon die, but all of them stayed in the living room as though his bedroom were the portal to the dark side. I remember thinking, ‘If I leave, who will stay with him until hospice arrives?’

“Remember the necklace you bought me in the Yucatan? I still wear it.” His eyes briefly fluttered. “Your family’s all here, and they love you. It’s OK if you want to let go.” I knew a minister had been to see him earlier in the week, when he was fully conscious, and had baptized him. “I know there’s a God,” I went on. “Of that, I am certain. It’s OK to let go and be with God.” I felt his hand stir in mine for what would be the last time.

A couple of days later, James went with me to the memorial service. That night, as I removed the necklace my former boyfriend had bought me in the Yucatan, the clasp broke and grey stones and tiny gold beads hit the floor, rolling in every direction. As I crawled along the floor to retrieve them, I wondered if it was coincidental, or perhaps he was saying goodbye.

The decision to talk about death is not always ours. Sometimes we must take our cues from the one who is dying. Without rendering his own opinion, Philip, my first husband, told me to choose the treatment for his lung cancer. After that, he clearly didn’t want to talk about the future, his or mine. While I, and everyone around him followed his lead, I don’t think I will do that again, certainly not with someone close to me.

James and I often talked and joked about death. When he’d scrunch up his face at the vegetables I’d put on his plate, I’d say, “You’re going to miss these when I’m gone.” Because of James’ Indian heritage and his West Texas upbringing, his attitude about death was practical and straightforward. “When my time comes,” he’d say, “Just throw me in the canyon and be done with me,” a reference to the days when the Indians broke camp and moved on. It was not uncommon to leave the old and infirm behind so they wouldn’t slow down the rest of the tribe.

Fear dictates our feelings about a lot of things, especially death and dying. I’ve already realized my biggest fears—James is gone and I’ve had cancer—so death holds no fear for me. For those who may be thinking about stopping treatment, it doesn’t mean you’re not a survivor. Like “The Carcinista,” part of surviving is deciding how to live and how to die, what’s best for you and your quality of life. For those of you who know someone who’s dying, at least for now, they are still among the living. While you may be uncomfortable about their impending death, please don’t ignore them. Don’t be afraid to tell them what they’ve meant to you, what you will remember about them. It’s OK to say “I’m heartbroken,” or “I don’t know what to say,” or “What can I do for you and your family?” And so what if you cry? Big wup! At least they will know you care.

Last week Oprah said something that echoed Drew Faust’s book: “Every death is a wakeup call to live more fully, more completely and more presently.” Let us not miss an opportunity to live our lives, and in the process, to lessen our fear of death.