Dying Well - The Gift We Gave Each Other
Clinical death happens in an instant, but our end-of-life journey – what we do once we have acknowledged that death is inevitable – can take days, weeks or months. It’s during that time that we have an opportunity to give someone we love one of the greatest gifts we can – helping them die the way they want to. When my husband Bruce decided to stop treatment for a terminal cancer, I was privileged to support and nurture him during his end-of-life journey. In return he gave us time, helped us say good-bye, and left us with memories we would cherish long after he was gone. His last two-an-a-half months were some of the most celebratory, peaceful, and intimate we had shared during our forty-six years together. And the feeling of gratitude, nine years later, has not abated for me, his family or his friends. It turns out, we both gave and received unexpected “gifts” during our remaining time together, and for that I am eternally grateful. For example:
I gave Bruce the gift of his right to “die well”.
I fully supported Bruce’s decision to stop treatment. When he decided to transition from “being sick”, and hoping for a cure, to “dying”, and hoping for the highest possible quality of life in the time remaining, I dedicated myself to making sure that he could live fully right up until the end.
Instead of doctor trips and hospital beds, we filled our days with visits to the places he loved best, with the people he loved most. We sat quietly together and drank in the salt air on Block Island. We took our 6-year-old granddaughter to New York City, a tradition started when she was two. I gathered our children and grandchildren at a beach house in Florida for a week, allowing Bruce (and us) to do the things he loved to do, being present and savoring every moment.
During an “Irish Wake” at our home, with Bruce of course being the guest of honor, he was able to relive and retell his life’s story as he listened to family remembrances. We visited the town where he grew up – his childhood home, the schoolyard where he had snowball fights, the YMCA where friends gathered after school, the church where he was an altar boy, the movie theater where he spent Saturday afternoons, the little league field. I finished writing the legacy he’d not had time to complete.
Overcoming my fear that I wouldn’t know what to do or might do the wrong thing, with the help of hospice nurses, I cared for Bruce, fulfilling his wish to die at home. As the end neared, I gave him space to think and feel, especially when his mind and spirit were turning inward. I assured him we would be okay and he knew I meant it.
And Bruce gave us so much in return.
From the start Bruce set the tone that inspired all who knew him to mourn his passing but celebrate his life. In the beginning, he vowed not to cry when revealing his diagnosis because he had noticed that if he cried others did. Near the end, at a roast thrown by his colleagues ten days before he died, he was the calmest person in the room, putting everyone else at ease.
He invited us to share his most intimate of journeys. Using an email distribution I had set up, Bruce shared often humorous updates and in return received words of love and encouragement. He wrote to his colleagues, telling them he was in Act III of this play called life and inviting them to call, write, or visit. The response was overwhelming.
He took the lead in intimate conversations. After apologizing for throwing our then-teenage son into the pool, he turned to Justin with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Your turn!” In a quiet moment with our daughter they assured each other that they had no regrets. A few days before he died he told me he wanted me to find someone who would love me as much as he did. We left nothing left unsaid.
He asked the people closest to him to speak at his memorial service, honoring the role they had played in his life. He asked our son to sing Bob Dylan’s If Not for You and dedicate it to me. Although we did not follow an organized religion, in order to comfort those who did he made sure the service included prayer. We wrote his obituary together, carefully choosing each word, each remembrance.
We gave each other a sense of completion.
Bruce achieved what most people want at the end of life, a sense of completion. He tied up loose ends, resolved conflicts, said goodbye, knew survivors would be okay, knew all would be forgiven, and that he would be remembered. I can’t say losing Bruce was easy, but we had been saying goodbye for months, knowing what was coming. I got to grieve with my best friend, and he with me. I had unexpected adjustments to make but none of the anger, regret, and loneliness I had heard in a bereavement group.
As I look back, I have never thought there was something I would or could have done differently. I had given Bruce the gift of dying well, and although by definition a gift is something given without expectation of a return, the gift I got in return was as profound as the gift I gave.