We never want to think about it. Even patients on hospice do not want to think about it. I do not like to think about it. But it there, waiting.
Some people think, well, it won't be my problem. And that is true. Many of the hospice patients I have taken care of have said they feel a release of all the nonsense they worried about for so long. Bills, chores, work.....you name it. So, not their problem anymore. They just want to be symptom free and pain free and die a good death surrounded by caring people, family and friends.
But sometimes they forget about what they will leave behind in the wake of their death. And that is where the real tragedy begins. With the end.
I am not talking about the grief and emptiness of losing someone. I am talking about all the other stuff that gets left behind. Sometimes it is a big money problem. I have seen that a lot. Or they have left a spouse who can no longer take care of himself and there is no one to step in, even though there are three adult children. No plans were ever made. No one dared to talk about it.
Then there is always the stuff that is left behind and the fighting about who gets what or how to dispose of unwanted things. There are pets without owners, children without answers and many times feelings inside that are come crawling out when people least expect them. Like anger or regret. And their life goes on with unanswered questions and thoughts that will haunt them on good days and bad.
So once in a while you should really give a good thought to your own death. If you stepped out in front of a bus tomorrow, and died, what would you leave behind? Do you have a journal that you never want anyone to read? How about photos you never put into a scrapbook for your kids, but were always going to get around to.
If you have young kids, how will they remember you? As the harried woman who was always going to get to that craft project, but instead was always running around doing errands or cleaning up messes. How about that dog you promised? Did you ever get him? Or that trip to the park you keep promising. You know what I am talking about. But leaving behind broken promises isn't something we think of after death. But they are by far the most troubling, right behind the forgotten words. "I love you."
People are selfish in death. They say all the time, "I only wish for my children to be happy." I have said that about my own daughter. But how can a child, whether young or as an adult, be happy if they are left to sort out the mystery of their mom or dad? Of who they are? Of how they were really viewed by those that raised them. Of their lives.
So, at least put together a box of things you want to be remembered by, that show your real thoughts and feelings towards those who will be left to wonder. It can be a scrapbook. Or a letter. It does not have to be a fancy thing. It can just be simple. A note saying how much someone is loved is a cherished memory that will last throughout a lifetime.
I took care of a woman once, who I will call Joan. Joan had cancer, and came onto hospice quite early She was 72. She had two grown children, a son and a daughter. Joan was never demonstrative. She was a professor at a college in Boston and her husband, who lived with her, was an artist. They lived sparsely and mainly kept to themselves.
When Joan became ill, she wanted her daughter, who lived miles away, to come and care for her. After all she said, I gave her life. She owes it to me.
The dutiful daughter, Ann, did come. And she was ordered about by Joan, who was never pleased with anything she did for her. Ann would call me often, usually in tears, saying she could not cope anymore. She wanted her mom to be placed in a home. Her brother could not help and she had to get back to work. But her father insisted that the mom stay at home. And so she did.
It was a difficult time for Ann. On one hand she did love her mother, but on the other hand was only there out of a sense of obligation. She told me stories of her youth and how her mother was always too busy and never made cookies or sewed or did the things that Ann saw other mom's doing. Ann told me she held a deep resentment that she still carried with her and that had affected her life in so many ways. She thought she had worked through them, but now with her mother's illness, they all came flooding back. She was in despair.
She is not alone.
Joan died on a stormy Tuesday morning. Ann called me to let me know and I went over to the house to pronounce her mother and to offer comfort. When I got there, the house was eerily quiet. George, Joan's husband of some 49 years, sat in the living room in his recliner facing the window, staring out at the storm. He told me Joan was in the bedroom. And that was all he said.
Ann and I went into the bedroom. Joan was lying peacefully in her own bed. She had on a beautiful nightgown that her son had sent that had tiny red roses on it. They were Joan's favorite flower.
As we sat there, Ann told me her mom had said to her the night before to make sure to look into a closet in an unused bedroom. Ann asked me if I would accompany her to look, as she was suddenly frightened to go alone. As we walked into the room and turned on the light, Ann turned to me with hardened eyes. "I wished her dead, " she said.
We stood there for a moment, and finally Ann opened the closet door. Inside we found stacks of boxes, each one marked, "FOR ANN."
As she opened a box, and there were exactly 40 of them, each one held letters and notes and memories from each year of Ann's life. Some boxes were sparse; only holding a small reminder of a birthday card or Mother's Day card sent. Others were full of Ann's school art or tests. There were many pictures that were clearly marked and dated. Ann was astonished and smiled as she started to look through many of them.
Ann finally started to cry. "I had no clue what I meant to my mom. I wish I had known sooner."
My reply to her was, "At least you know now."
This gift from Ann's mother was remarkable. It was a lasting legacy that helped to ease the burden Ann had felt for so long. Some might say that her mom could have simply told her that she loved her. I wish it were that simple.
And so do you.
So tonight, think about your death. It does matter how you die. It matters to so many people you will leave behind. Leave them at least a small gift of your love, of your kindness, of your soul.
In that way, you live forever. And so does your love. A gift for a lifetime.
The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.
There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved. It is God's finger on man's shoulder.