Tag Archives: Death

Facing a Grave Illness

Should doctors tell their patients when death is imminent?  Would the news make a difference? 

A while ago, my dad had bad stomach pain.  He called the doctor, and the doctor said, “Oh just take some antacids.” He took antacids for about a week, but the pain didn’t go away.  The doctor went “down periscope” and discovered that my dad had a rare form of stomach cancer, and it was bad.  He underwent surgery and then did chemo (which you all know how pleasant of an experience that is).  While this was going on, I asked the doctor if he could explain to me what was likely to happen next based on what he found.  He said he’d give him about five years.  I thought, “OK, he’s 61. Five years is great.”

He was dead in six weeks. 

As it seems, a huge percentage of doctors don’t want to eliminate hope or upset anybody, so they exaggerate.  It makes it difficult for everyone involved for a couple of reasons.  First, the person who’s dying may want to sort of tidy up his or her life by remedying some relationships or putting some business things in order.  In addition, caregivers need to plan their lives too, especially since they put all their focus and energy into taking care of the ill person.

In my dad’s case, the cancer had metastasized to his brain and it took very little time for him to die.  It was stunning.   He had led such a healthy life except for several gin and tonics every night.  Otherwise, he ate nauseatingly healthy food.  You’d open up the refrigerator at my house and you’d say, “Is there nothing here to eat?  This is all way too healthy.”  I did try – although it was pretty grim – to have a conversation with him about what his wishes were before he passed, but he wasn’t up for talking about it.  It’s because of this that I think it’s really important to know the truth about your loved one’s quality of life – How is the disease going to progress?  What are you going to need to do?  What are you going to feel like? – before it’s too late.

I realize that some people want to know the truth and some don’t, but that’s exactly why a doctor should ask and not just soften the news.  Hope is nice, but “hope for the best to prepare for the worst” is probably smarter.  Of course doctors don’t know when the end is going to come exactly (they’re not soothsayers), but they know enough from their experience, generally speaking, to be able to say, “Don’t plan past Thursday,” or “Don’t plan past next year.”  And yes, there are always exceptions every now and then (i.e. the doctor says that the person is going to die sooner than later, and it happens later), but usually they can make a good guess. 

The doctor should also ask if he or she should tell the patient’s family.  Getting permission to tell the family is very important because when doctors withhold information, it becomes more difficult for the family to chart the patient’s course in life.  And moreover, if the doctor withholds information from the family, they’re going to just go look it up on the Internet.  I think a human being should be the source of that information.

Sometimes people don’t want to talk about death with their physician, or certain decisions need to be made without their input.  When the doctor tells it like it is, it allows family members to decide what they want to do and not do.  They can decide if they want aggressive treatment that might prolong life, or choose to stop treatment, which could result in a faster but perhaps more comfortable death.  These decisions are part of the new focus on health care which is allowing people to die with some dignity, and leaves families feeling at least somewhat competent in the time of crisis because they know what’s being asked of them. 

In addition, families should discuss whether or not they want to know the truth if one of them gets in that position.  Generally speaking, the family wants to know a little bit more than the terminally ill person.  Personally, I want to know the calendar day and time.  I’m big on clarity (I have already had all of these discussions with my son so he knows exactly what I do and do not want).  However, a lot of people feel negatively about that because they believe it eliminates hope.  But either way, my recommendation is that your family should sit down and discuss plans in case someone needs treatment.  People freak out about discussing this because they don’t want to even think about it, but you should (even with your more mature children in their mid-to-upper teens).   Sit and calmly talk about what all the possibilities are and your wishes for each scenario (i.e. “If my brain is no longer connected to reality, I don’t want to be here”).  You can even leave the option open to have life prolonging treatment for when the time comes.  

Remember that everybody else stays behind and has to deal with things after you’re gone, so providing clarity about what you want helps everybody deal with feelings of guilt, fear, and anxiety later.

A woman called me a while back whose 92-year-old mother was alert and perky, but she was on perpetual dialysis.  She wanted to get off it, call in hospice, and call it a day.   Of course her daughter was upset.  She was not only losing her mom, but her kids were also going to have to experience death.  However, I told her that she had to respect her mother’s wishes.  I said that hospice is an incredibly moving experience and takes care of everybody in the family, not just the person leaving, and that her mom had decided she had lived a good life and didn’t want to be spending her time watching her blood being recycled.  She just wanted to go out peacefully, and her daughter needed to honor that. 

Till Death Do Us Part

I heard this story a few months ago, but wanted to bring it to your attention again right before Valentine’s Day as an example of true and deep love.

The headline from last October read: “Iowa Couple Married 72 Years Dies Holding Hands, an Hour Apart,” and the article went on to say that their passing “reflected the nature of their marriage where…everything was done together,” according to their daughter.  Here’s more about them:

Gordon Yeager, 94, and his wife Norma, 90, left their small town of State Center, Iowa, on Wednesday to go into town, but never made it. A car accident sent the couple to the emergency room and intensive care unit with broken bones and other injuries. But, even in the hospital, their concerns were each other.

The most important part of the story is what comes next.  I really want you to think about it.

“She was saying her chest hurt and what’s wrong with Dad? Even laying there like that, she was worried about Dad,” said the couple’s son, Dennis Yeager, 52. “And his back was hurting and he was asking about Mom.”

When it became clear that their conditions were not improving, the couple was moved into a room together in beds side-by-side where they could hold hands.

He joined his right hand to her left hand, and that’s how they died. 

The key to the whole story, however, was they were concerned about each other up to the moment they passed away.

I wrote a book several years ago entitled “The Proper Care and Feeding of Marriage,” in which I talk about waking up each day, looking over at your spouse and making the decision to make their day worthwhile and to make them happy that they are married to you.  In other words, instead of waking up with all your bitchy thoughts, all your self- centered thoughts about what you’re not getting, what you’re not feeling,  wake up thinking  what you do for him/her to make his/her life worth living and worth living with you.  That is the key to this couple.  And that’s the key to them dying together.

There are more stories that illustrate this point: Couple Die Together After 62 Years of Marriage

Eighty-four-year-old Robert, whose health had declined steadily in recent years, always expected to go first. His 80-year-old wife, Darlene, had been his steady caretaker at home they built with their own hands, until she was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few weeks to live.

When Robert learned Darlene was terminally ill, he quickly grumbled: “I’m terminal, too.”  While family members and caretakers just chalked off that statement to the emotion of the moment, as his wife lay beside him in her last moments, he, too because to die.  Only six hours separated their deaths.
It was a bittersweet moment for the couple’s five children and extended family.

While they’d lost their mother and father, they knew their parents, the couple who lived and breathed love for one another, who spooned together every night while watching the news, who even walked to their mailbox in tandem had received their last wish.

Their story of love and long-term devotion showcases an aspect of humanity that even modern science has a hard time explaining: that sometimes strength of will decides whether we live or die.

Their chemistry was magical, the family said. They got up from bed together and always waited for the other to get in bed at night. Mornings over coffee together developed a mutual plan of attack for the day. Darlene always made sure Robert’s lunch was packed and clothes folded for him to wear.

They eventually had nine children, and it’s safe to say they proved their doctor wrong.

Robert suffered strokes, kidney troubles, congestive heart failure and other ailments following, but he never complained.

“I’m fine,” he’d always say.

In retirement, they never left each other’s sides. If a check needed depositing, they went to the bank together. Grocery shopping was done in tandem. The pair even ventured to the mailbox together everyday unless one was too ill to do so.

In the days before their deaths, hospice had a special bed put into the couple’s bedroom, where youthful pictures of Robert and Darlene hang above their respective bedsides. Robert, in their own bed, held her hand tight as she began to die.

Not long after, the nurse came to check on Robert. Astonishingly, his vital signs began to fail. His breathing became broken. He was actively dying, the nurse told the family. There were no drugs or methods he’d used to quicken death; it just began to happen.

They gave him two days to live, tops. Instead, he joined his wife in death only six hours after hers.

Robert and Darlene, whose services were held Thursday, will be buried in the same way they lived their lives together.

In the same casket.

Dying beside the love of your life and passing into eternity together is the stuff of legends, but it’s well documented around the world.  It’s some connection.  It’s some special connection.  In some cases, research shows that one person’s heartbeat can affect and even regulate another’s (working as a type of life support).

Now, in none of these cases where spouses died within minutes or hours of each other was there a suicide.  I think the amazing thing to take from these stories is that these relationships lasted that long. But it’s a simple fact (and one to remember when you find yourselves crabbing and whining about each other):  these husbands and wives lived to make sure the other was happy.  And, in doing so, they were happy. 

It’s really not that complicated, and it’s something very special to think about this Valentine’s Day.

When Bad Things Happen to Children

On my SiriusXM show recently, I spoke about the meaning of life, and then I got this email from Lisa:

I heard part of your program today and you read about the different thoughts about the meaning of life… I’ve been thinking about that, too.

As the mother of a child who is dying of cancer, like many of us, we are losing our faith in a big powerful “daddy in the sky” that hears our prayers. I’ve heard from Christians that “God doesn’t give you what you can’t handle” but I can’t handle this. “God gives you strength to get through it” – no, He doesn’t. I’m about to lose my mind… the pain is much too great to bear. I hear that this is God’s plan, or that God needs another angel. If he needed another angel, he would just take one, HE WOULDN’T TORTURE THEM FIRST! How could he PLAN to put a child through this kind of HELL? What good could ever come out of this?

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. We wear gold ribbons, but only 3% of cancer research goes to childhood cancers. Does anybody care? Is the meaning of life only to do research on the “popular” cancers because they are the ones that will make money for the one who finds the cure? My son’s cancer is so rare that he gets the same chemotherapy he would have had in the 1980s… it doesn’t get researched.

Please tell me what the meaning of life is!

If you look at God as a “big powerful daddy in the sky that hears [your] prayers” and will give you what you want, and if you are a good person, you can’t help but be disappointed on a daily basis. That doesn’t seem to be the way it works. 

I know no other pain on the face of the earth that is greater than a parent having to see their child suffer and die.   I think parents would rather they suffer and die and trade themselves in for their kids.  So, this is the worst torture, but this is not a test of God.  That someone’s child or husband or wife or parent or friend gets ill and dies is not a test of whether or not there is a God.  There isn’t a test of whether or not there is a God — that’s why it’s called “faith.” To say that “I’m dubious about God” because my prayers aren’t being answered in the way that I want, is, in my opinion, never to have understood faith in the first place, but just to have played a social role in which you call yourself “religious.” 

There is no explanation for these things.  And, I agree with Lisa when she writes:  “If he needed another angel, he would just take one, HE WOULDN’T TORTURE THEM FIRST!….What good could ever come out of this?”  I like that answer of hers.  I think telling somebody this is God’s plan is a little obnoxious and I always thought it was.  It’s your assumption God is planning this.  You have no proof of that.  People go back to the story of Job and what he had to suffer and Abraham who almost wiped out his own kid until God said, “I see you really love me.  You don’t have to do this.” 

There are some important concepts and issues here.  When any of us says “I can’t handle this,” yet we make it through every day, we are handling it.  “Handling it” doesn’t mean it feels good or it’s easy; “handling it” usually means we are surviving it and doing the best we can.

I don’t understand all of the mass murders of the world — Stalin, Pol Pot, Germany, Japan. I don’t understand how that’s God’s will or God’s plan. It doesn’t make any sense to me, either.  And I don’t know how to put it together.  I don’t know how it’s God’s plan to have little children put in ovens and killed.  Or mommies and their children shot to death and put into a hole in the ground, naked.  I don’t understand how any of that is God’s plan.  So, I have no answer to that. 

This was not a theological thing where I was going to explain what life really means, other than there’s always been horror.  It’s like the horror films you see in the movies where there’s evil and someone in the church or somebody else finally squelches the evil and at the end you see the evil creeping up through the ground again. 

There is evil, there is disappointment, there is pain, there is everything.  So, ultimately, whether you really believe in God or not, we really need to hold on to each other.  There is something about touching the hand of another who corroborates your pain.  That’s why with parents in this situation, I always tell them to find other parents in this situation.  They will be the first ones to hug you and they won’t get tired of hearing from you like other relatives will.  It’s not they get tired, per se, it’s just they can’t do anything to help and it’s upsetting, so they don’t want to hear it anymore.  They are not being bad, they just don’t know how to fix it. They feel guilt and they feel uncomfortable and then they start feeling anger.  So, to go to people who have been there and done that is the way we hold on to each other.  Some people call that behavior the way God helps you go through things which are inexplicable. 

So, let’s not call bad things that happen “God’s plan,” because that hurts people.  God planned to hurt my kid?  You’re gonna tell me, there’s some higher power and I’m supposed to rise above that pain and say absolutely “I adore you?”  I think it’s a horrible thing to tell people.  I don’t think it’s good to tell kids God’s an all-powerful “daddy in the sky” who can do anything.  Well, then why isn’t he doing it for me?  I don’t like when people walk out of a bus that just been in a crash and they are alive and everyone else is dead and they say, “but for the grace of God.”  What the heck does that mean?  God intentionally wiped them out and kept you?

I think we want to feel special like we feel to a parent.  God is some kind of extension of parenthood.  We sometimes don’t realize how cruel we sound.  So, here’s my frame of reference for all of this.  There are evil things people do because they are evil.  There are horrible things that happen just because there are horrible things that happen.  The human body has weaknesses and that’s just the way it is.  There aren’t cures for everything because we are not good enough yet to produce them.  It’s hard to get money for things only a few people suffer from – Lisa is right about that.

The bottom line is we’ve got to hold on to each other.  That’s the immediate salvation: to hold on to each other’s love, support, and kind feeling.  It’s irrelevant if bad things are happening or not.  The way to make it through life, I believe, is to really be compassionate and to be open to compassion.  That’s what helps you get through the things that are inexplicable and horrible.