Reflection #3: Do I Read About Death?

The New York Times Magazine dated May 14, 2015, has a piece by Robin Marantz Henig entitled “The Last Day of Her Life”, about the death of a woman named Sandy Bem.

I read the Times online now, after having been a print newspaper reader for decades. I scan the articles, reading some right away and coming back later to pick up on others when I have more time.

I passed by the life and death of Sandy Bem, not because I didn’t have time but because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the article at all.  I passed it by two or three times before I finally clicked. Just below the headline is a photo of 65 year old Sandy smiling joyfully in her garden, her small grandson Felix in her arms. Not long after that, Sandy died at the time and place of her choosing, in her own home, her own bed, with her ex-husband Daryl by her side. Diminished by dementia, Sandy obtained two vials of pentobarbitol. Before she was too impaired to use it, Sandy took her own life.

Having turned 70, I know that death is on the horizon. Being a practical and matter-of-fact person, I know that death is the natural culmination of life. I’ve had many loved ones die. My husband Jerry had what’s known as a good death. He had a normal day, talked to our son Matt on the phone, went upstairs to our bedroom and fell to the floor, dead within seconds of a massive cardiac event. Friends who are physicians tell me he probably didn’t even have time to feel afraid. My dear friend Bern had a terrible death, suffering for months with badly controlled pain that took away her hope, joy, and most of what made her the person I knew. Friend Rita tried experimental treatment for her cancer, and by the end she was unable to put together words in a sentence. I think she was trying to tell me how hard she tried. Another friend stopped her experimental treatment because of the devastating side effects, and died bitter and angry that cancer had visited her again. Friend and neighbor Anne was so deeply into dementia I’m sure she didn’t even know she was dying.

Death takes many forms, and I won’t get to choose the manner of mine, only my response. Or, perhaps like Jerry, death will be too sudden even for that.

So do I read about death, when it’s an event almost totally out of my control? Why did I click on the article about Sandy Bem? I actually found the story so intense I read it twice, to make sure I was getting the whole narrative and not zoning out mentally in parts because the content was so difficult.

Sometimes we read to bear witness, and I did that for Sandy Bem. I think she was a woman of great courage and integrity. I would have liked her. Had I been her friend I would have respected her choice of time and place but wished, like her daughter, that she’d have given us a few more days with her in the garden.

Sometimes we read to learn, to de-mystify something that looms large and frightening.  Sandy’s process in deciding to die before dementia robbed her of herself was logical and deliberate. I already knew that if you’re going to do this, you have to do it while you still can. What I think I didn’t know is that dementia can take you to the point that not even holding a small, sweet grandson in your arms is enough to make you want to hold on. Ouch. That’s a tough one.

Sometimes we read out of curiosity. The New York Times also has two blogs by women living with cancer. One is young and in remission, Suleika Jaouad. One, Susan Gubar, is around my age and fighting to put off the inevitable. I read both every time something new is posted. Their writing is brutally honest about what living with cancer, and cancer treatment, entails. I think the difference between their writing and the article about Sandy Bem is that they are living. That makes their stories easier for me, because I can say, “Well, the treatment might be terrible but look, each of these women has a life.”

I read the article about Sandy Bem because, in the end, I couldn’t not read it. People think of me as a highly competent person, but I’m not competent around death. I think that stems from the death of my father when I was 14, a devastating event in my life at a time when I had little support to help me emerge with some sense that a loss of this magnitude is survivable. In three cases more recently, I’ve chosen not to visit friends who were near death, because I could manage talking with them by phone but didn’t want to see them. I know that Bern forgave me. If she could have, she would have said that my presence in her life was more important to her than my being there just before her death. I’m not sure about the other two. Perhaps they were disappointed in me, and wished I’d come.

I think I read the Sandy Bem article because I’m trying to grow in wisdom and grace around death. I think I’ll try to push myself to go beyond reading, and beyond talking with terminally ill loved ones by phone, before death calls out to me. I don’t have to do that, because death will come whether I’m ready or not. But I choose to.

Another goal of conscious aging. My but this stage of life is hard.

12 thoughts on “Reflection #3: Do I Read About Death?

  1. I also read the article about Sandy Bem and found it difficult to take in. Perhaps, because I visited our cousin Adrienne last week and was shocked to see that she has lost her words. She still knows me and kept up a stream of chatter that was almost all gibberish. After a while, as I responded to what I thought she was trying to say, we actually had a decent visit. I find it very hard to see her like this, but while she still knows me, I will still go.

  2. for Linda: I like to think you are one of the last people who will be lost to Adrienne, but dementia is such a cruel disease we can hardly know. I’m glad you still go. I hate to think of her without family who love her. I kept going to see my friend and neighbor Anne even after she didn’t know me, or even her daughter, from a potted plant. It was difficult and sad. How can our funny, articulate cousin Ade have lost her words? I’m sitting her shaking my head. I’m so sorry for her, and for us.

  3. I am not sure what words to use as I post this, as I am not yet ready to talk. However, how serendipitous that you post about the subject of dying now. My only sibling, my beloved sister, passed away at 5:30 last night after 7 months of suffering from pancreatic cancer. I spent long hours at her bedside the last few weeks and especially the last week. Since Tuesday, she had to be given so much morphine for pain and difficulty breathing, she slipped into near unconsciousness. It was so difficult to bear witness to. I know that my insisting that she be given more and more morphine to minimize her suffering may have hastened her death by a couple days. I was good with that. I had been told that hearing in the last thing to go, so, with this possibility in mind, I/we constantly whispered in her ear how much we love her and how much she was loved by so many. Her husband and I were holding her when she breathed her last breath.

    I think to know approximately when we are going to die can be a gift. My sister and I discussed that. She and I and others got to say everything we wanted to say to each other. We tried to make these last few months as happy and filled with love and beauty as we could for her. During her chemo I played recordings of beautiful choral music that we grew up with. Those chemo sessions became something she actually looked forward to.

    I hope I have not depressed anyone. That is not my intention. I am not sure what my intention is. I just wanted to honor my sister and to say that the process of dying need not necessarily be all negative. She is at peace now and those of us who are left grieve.

  4. For Frances: I have tears in my eyes as I read this. First of all, my sympathy on the death of your only sister. How blessed she was to have you there for these last months and finally, the last hours. I know your presence was a great comfort to her, and I trust that she heard you and knew you were there right up until the end. And thank you for trusting this small community of readers with this immense moment in your life, this immense loss. So much in terms of shared memory goes away when a sibling dies. Your story isn’t depressing, although the loss is sad. I agree that knowing approximately when we are going to die is a gift. I struggled for a long time over not being with Jerry when he died, even though friends who were physicians assured me he lapsed into unconsciousness very quickly. That didn’t matter to me. I didn’t want him to be alone. I’ve had to let go of that longing to be there for him. I’m so glad life gave you the opportunity to be there for your sister. Do you feel comfortable sharing her first name with us, so that we can hold her in our hearts and honor her life too?

  5. for Frances: How would you feel about my bringing your reflection about your sister’s death from the Comments and making it a blog post? I think it’s an important part of the conversation, and not everyone reads the comments. I think readers would find your words important and meaningful. I read about your sister in the link provided, and went further online to find her picture. Such accomplished sisters!

  6. I am not objective enough to perceive my words as meaningful to others. However, if you think they are, you are welcome to do whatever you would like with them. Thank you for your kind words.

  7. for Frances: Thank you. Yes, I think your post was important and deserves a wider reading. Look for it tomorrow.

  8. Great writing piece and some impressive comment regarding different views on death and acceptance of it. Thank you Frances for sharing and sympathies to you and your family. Your sister sounds like she was loved and cherished. What a great memory to share in a difficult time.

  9. for J: Thanks. Hard piece to write. I too thought Frances’ comment was very moving, and I’m posting it tomorrow in the regular blog section as not everyone reads the comments.

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