When my mother-in-law was dying of cancer, the family came from all over to be with her that summer before her death. We all brought our children so that they might have positive memories of their “Bubby” before it was too late. No one mentioned the word death that whole summer. No one talked of what her desires might be. Later, when my children received items that had been bequeathed to them by their grandmother, I wondered how much more meaningful it might have been if she could have given these things to them herself, with a few words of what those items meant to her and why she wanted this particular child to have it.
Yet, I know it is easy to assume you know what a person should do or say when you are not in their shoes. As much as I think I might do it differently if it were I, until you are in the situation, you do not know how you will react. Perhaps, my mother-in-law did not want to talk about or prepare for the end. But there is a piece of me that wonders, what if she did and we did not let her?
When Eva, a well spouse, was visiting her husband in the hospital, the man in the next bed had just received the news that the doctors had done all they could. Barring a miracle, the man had only a few weeks left to live. Eva couldn’t help but overhear the conversations that this man had with his family behind the curtain that divided the two beds to give the illusion of privacy. She was astounded to hear the talk of death going on with each visitor.
No one told him not to speak of death. No one told him that miracles could happen. No one begged him to hold on. Eva told me that each of his visitors allowed him to speak his mind. They allowed him to talk of his future, realistically. They comforted him with talk of the afterlife and how they would all be together again, some day. They talked about how he would be going to a better place, one without pain and anger. He wanted to talk of his death, and they let him.
When they left, his visitors often said, “We will be back in a few days. We hope we will be privileged to see you.” Many people came, Eva told me, to thank him for the effect he had on their lives. Not waiting for shiva, they wanted him to know, then and there, how his kind deeds had affected them and what a difference he had made in their lives. This is something so few of us hear when we are alive, but is often shared with family after our death.
He spoke with his children and grandchildren and left them with a legacy of verbal gifts, more precious than anything materialistic. He told them of the small things that they had done over the years that had given him joy or pride or laughter. And he spoke of the larger things for which he was thankful. And when the man passed, despite the tears of those around him, there seemed to be a feeling of peace and closure.
Eva told me how impressed she was with her husband’s roommate and what had happened. She told me that her husband, who was chronically ill, had been at death’s door many times. When this happened, she said, they avoided talk of his possible death. Actually, Eva felt it was she who avoided it and perhaps, over the years had made it a taboo topic for him. She began to wonder if he, indeed, wanted to talk about it. She wondered if she was denying him something he needed to do, but had been trained by her not to discuss death – his death. But, Eva felt she just couldn’t go there. She could not imagine life without him and didn’t want to. Not with words and not in her mind. She wondered if what she was doing was selfish. It was really wonderful watching the other family handle death. Was her inability to deal with it depriving her family of something good…. or just the opposite?
It is very difficult to deal with painful situations. Somehow we seem to feel that not talking about what is painful and inevitable keeps it at bay and gives us more time with what is, instead of what will be. But I wonder which family is better off. And I wonder who makes the decision, the person dying or those watching him die? Who has more right? Who has more strength? Who suffers more? Perhaps it is just a case of “different strokes for different folks,”…but I can’t help but wonder.
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