Grieving for ourselves

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

The first time I had general anesthesia for surgery, I was sure I was going to die. I looked for my life insurance information, began to compose in my head final letters to my family, dug around in my clutter to discard embarrassing items(!), and gave last cuddles to our cats.

OK, so I didn’t die, then. I am now eighty years old and have elected to have another serious surgery. An excellent doctor assures me that it will seriously improve my quality of life. So in my quest to live until my spouse’s student loans are paid off (That long? Why yes), I am going to put my life into the hands of another anesthesiologist.

I have no desire, right now, to go through all that end-of-life rigmarole that I did the first time. It does, however, cause me to ponder how many of us face the ultimate event.

Jeopardy host, Alex Trebek, is dealing with pancreatic cancer. In a personal comment recently, he talked about it in this way:

Hey guys. I’m 79-years-old. I’ve had one hell of a good life. And I’ve enjoyed it … the thought of passing on doesn’t frighten me, it doesn’t. Other things do, the affect it will have on my loved ones … it makes me sad. But the thought of myself moving on, hey folks, it comes with the territory.”

Trebek expresses the same sentiment that my father did decades ago and an approach that resonates with my experience as well. Dying itself, unimaginable, at any rate, isn’t nearly as concerning as how my death will affect my loved ones.

Ira Byock, M.D., in his book, The Four Things That Matter Most, gives us some simple, but profound suggestions about how to prepare. Be ready to talk with those closest to you, whether expressing or listening, and use these four basic statements to shape the conversation:

“Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

I call this “grieving for ourselves.” I don’t know if that is how you perceive it but, for me, it makes all this less frightening. It also helps me with my determination to let anxiety go, at every step of the way.

“Rage against the dying of the light?” or “Let go?”

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten, as a dream
Fades at the opening day.
-Issac Watts, 1719; alt

It used to annoy me when someone use “passed away” for “died.” I am glad to say I have come to see that everyone can, and maybe should, use any euphemism that helps in grief.

Changing my mind may have to do with my age.

Thirty-five years ago, in a small group of Unitarian University clergy, I took part in a mini-debate about whether, as Dylan Thomas wrote, we should “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” or simply, as the 12 Step phrase reminds us, just “Let go, let god.” As I have hinted, I argued that we ought not “go gentle into that good night” while others, with the gray hair I now possess, suggested that faith, and a longer view, made them see that dying should be not a struggle but an acceptance.

There are certainly tragic deaths for which “passed away” seems a ridiculous description. School shootings, tsunamis, childhood cancer, just to mention a few, are events for which “died” is the only appropriate word.

But there are, every day, the examples of humans who have simply gone the way of all creatures. A stalwart church member in Hanover was over a hundred at the end. A dear Bailey family friend just went at over a hundred My mother was 96. It is just the way life is.

This concept is more difficult for those who are left behind. No matter how old the person may be we still never want that day to come. I thought this when we lost Bill Coffin and, in another way, when  George Carlin had a fatal heart attack. What they were to us and their closest love ones make the passing away to be filled with utter loss.

There never really is enough time and as we approach the end of our days, that becomes more poignant. For me, the concept of passing away which comes to us all, helps me to use the time I do have in a more meaningful way.

I will die? Wait, what?

Do you remember the first time you realized that you would die? It happened to me when I was in my 20’s. Why? I don’t know but it caused such a rush of adrenaline that I spent the next few minutes in panic mode.

Facing this ultimate, unchangeable fact is an emotional and spiritual challenge to say the least. For most of us, we experience it differently at various times in our life.

I haven’t had that overwhelming shock now for as long as I can remember. I have however been shaken by the death of others. The feelings that come then are as close to death for me as I can imagine.

In the winter of 2004-05, my very close friend, Dudley Weider, died suddenly while out cross country skiing. For weeks and weeks, I couldn’t seem to get away from pain of loss and the fact of my own mortality.

I was glad that I worked in a huge research and teaching medical complex because it enabled me to quickly and smoothly get an appointment with a counselor. I sat down with this insightful psychiatrist and told her I was afraid to die. And she asked “What specifically are you afraid of?”

I am not sure why it took what it took but it was such a relief to answer that I really wasn’t afraid of death itself but I hated the thought of how that would affect those I love most dearly.

A dreamless sleep without awareness is not so daunting for me now. The agony for my spouse and children, however, is the thing I would so like to avoid. That of course is just as impossible as living forever.

What can one do? One simple thing is talk to them, hoping they understand. I think of Ira Byock’s book, Four Things That Matter Most.  “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you” which carry great power to heal and to mend relationships. They can also help one feel some resolution at the end of days when said to those closest to you.

From there, I guess we are on our own, in most ways but not right now. So, maybe the best bet is to stop thinking about it for now.