Let’s talk honestly about death (and the end of a good life)

Heather Jose

Heather Jose

My grandma got married two weeks after she graduated from highschool. She was 17 years old. She and my grandpa had been married for 68 years when he passed away in 2007. She kept saying that she wished it had been her. She had never lived alone, never pumped her own gas, never even set an alarm clock.

Today she is still waiting to go.

She talks about it every time I visit, but it isn’t morbid.

It is truth.

Photo of Heather Jose grandparents in 1939

My grandparents in their prime in 1939.

She has had a good life, but she is tired now, her legs don’t work well, she misses my grandpa. I completely get it. As a family we all do, and we will do our best to let her live out her days in comfort and without procedures that would extend her life. I am not going to try to talk her out of her thoughts or tell her she still has so much to live for. Instead I tell her that I understand and that I will miss her, but I will be happy for her.

Is that wrong?

HE LOOKED AT ME AND SAID:
‘I’M READY TO GO’

I don’t back away from these conversations about death. I want elderly people to be heard, especially in a system where oftentimes they aren’t. Just as I listen to my grandma tell me she is ready, I do the same with my patients on my occasional shifts at a local nursing home.

Recently I was talking with a kind gentleman in his eighties. His wife had been gone for a number of years and his children visited occasionally. He had more bad days than good in terms of health.

Then, he looked at me and said, “I’m ready to go.” He went on to say he missed his wife and many friends and that had gone before him.  Just like my grandma.

When I told him that I understood you could hear the sigh of relief. He didn’t want to fight or have to defend himself. Nor did he want to hear the standard lines that often come from younger people as they dismiss death. He wanted to be heard.

When life has been experienced and a person is ready to go I don’t feel that death is defeat. It is a part of life.

Do you agree?

Please, leave a comment below and let’s get a discussion started. This is such an important subject for millions of families. And, please, if you appreciate this column—click the Facebook button at the top of this column to tell friends, or click the Email envelope logo and send this to a friend that way.

 

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Comments

  1. David Crumm says

    Like Heather and millions of other Americans, my wife and I have parents in the frail-and-very-elderly final years of life. Like so many other families, we had to work through the legal forms my parents wanted to sign, specifying that they did not want extreme measures at the end of life. This can be grim stuff. It can make us not even want to talk about thee natural questions about the end of a long and good life.

    I’m leaving this comment just to say: Today’s column by Heather is describing the place so many of us live now.

    And to say: While I am not Catholic, as a veteran religion newswriter I covered the career of Pope John Paul II and I personally found his long pastoral letter, called The Gospel of Life, very reassuring. We all know that John Paul was opposed to suicide or euthanasia, but he wrote eloquently about how end-of-life medical procedures should be proportionate.

    Here is how Pope John Paul II made this point in a portion of his long letter that I find helpful and reassuring: “Certainly there is a moral obligation to care for oneself and to allow oneself to be cared for, but this duty must take account of concrete circumstances. It needs to be determined whether the means of treatment available are objectively proportionate to the prospects for improvement. To forego extraordinary or disproportionate means is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia; it rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death.”

    In fact, as we all know, John Paul himself refused some procedures at the end of his own life. While many people still disagree with many of his teachings, myself included, he did give us a model of a good life — and a good death, I think.

    Let’s not be afraid of these topics. Thanks, Heather, for today’s column! I urge readers to click the Facebook button at the top of her column and share it with a friend. Let’s talk more about this.

  2. Bobbie Lewis says

    What a beautiful photo of your grandparents, Heather!

    My experience in the hospice field has made me very aware that there’s such a thing as a “good death.” To me that’s when a person is satisfied with his or her life, not in any pain (because of proper palliative care) and has had an opportunity to express apologies (if necessary), thanks and love to family and friends.

    It’s something that happens to everyone. As you say, death is a part of life.

  3. Kathy Macdonald says

    Great photo and advice. My father is in his 90’s with none of his old friends. He continues to make new friends, but finds it even more painful when the new friends pass away. This is a time to listen versus lecture. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Debra says

    Heather, a beautiful and important column. I agree with Bobbie. I too have volunteered for hospice and there can be space for great love and healing if death isn’t run from or avoided with “shush, shush” kind of talk. The spark left my grandmother when my grandfather died. I was with her when she passed and though I was bereft, there was also gratitude that whatever would come next would now embrace her, too.

  5. Brenda says

    There are many who find no relief in the concept of death. Am packing to move again for the last time I think, and when I said in a general conversation that I was happy I wouldn’t have to pack or make lusts or obsess about it – those listening were stunned – almost petrified – so I still search my heart – am I in denial? Am I oversimplifying my death? What might be wrong with me or us nothing wrong with me-

    • Brenda says

      There are many who find no relief in the concept of death. Am packing to move again for the last time I think, and when I said in a general conversation that I was happy I wouldn’t have to pack or make lists or obsess about my next move -those listening were stunned – almost petrified – so I still search my heart – am I in denial? Am I oversimplifying my death? What might be wrong with me or is nothing wrong with me-

      Reply

  6. Margaret Passenger says

    Death, indeed, is a part of life. It is not defeat. It is the omega, as birth is the alpha.
    Like the gentleman Heather mentions, my mother was “ready to go.” She was not afraid of death, and in her final moments her face was radiant.
    I, too, encourage conversations about death and respect for the dying person’s wishes, however difficult that all may be.
    And to Brenda I would say, there is nothing wrong with you at all.