The dying experience can be a gift, regardless of the time of year because it makes one reflect on the brevity of life and what is really important. Over the years, people who found themselves in this experience have told me me they no longer saw life as something to be endured, but rather a pattern of experiences to savor.
What does that mean? It means it is time to use the good china and crystal any day, wear your good blazer to the grocery store, eliminate “someday” and “one of these days” from your vocabulary because if it is worth seeing or hearing or doing, see and hear and do it now.
From personal experience, I can tell you it is the little things left undone that will make you angry – those letters you intended to write, the apology you never got around to giving, not telling someone how much you truly loved them.
Don’t hold back or save anything that would add laughter and luster to your life now because the death rate is still 100 percent. We’re all going to die and perhaps the best gift we give ourselves and the people we love is to resolve to not squander any of our days.
When I first talked to Jim Chastain about chronicling this part of his life in a very public way, I was reminded of the story of an old man in ancient Israel who was planting a fig tree when a Roman general happened to pass by. The general said to the man, “Don’t you realize it will take twenty years before that tree will grow enough to give fruit, and you will be long dead by then?” The old man responded, “When I was a small child, I could eat fruit because those who came before me had planted trees. Am I not obliged to do the same for the next generation?”
Since every one of us is going to die, why should we not learn from those who are going through the experience – learn how to move through the dying time with dignity, but also learn how to live each day, until that happens, in a way that will provide “fruit” for the next generation.
Jim Chastain has a gift of poetry. He uses words to express his feelings and his experiences in a way that resonates with me. I want to learn from this man everything I can – and in his sharing of this experience, I am certain I will find it useful for myself and I will teach it to my children and grandchildren and in the doing of that, Jim’s life will bear fruit for the generations that follow.
Two small, short, easy-to-read books that I wish someone had given to my husband and to me after we were told he probably didn’t have more than 6 months to live, were books I found after the fact.
One You Love is Dying and When You Know You’re Dying written by James Miller are practical, useful, and will aid you in facing intelligently the reality that lies ahead. Each of them offers 12 thoughts to guide you on the journey.
Too often we treat death like we treat sex. We know it is there, but we don’t talk about it.
When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, first started her studies in this area, she recalls visiting doctors and nurses in a
“We don’t have any,” they said. Or, “You can’t talk to them because you’ll upset them if you as them any questions.”
When she finally got to the patients, over the opposition of the medical staff, she found they were hungry for someone to talk to and for someone who would listen to them.
Even though it is now “in” to be able to talk about dying, the reality is most of us don’t expect it to happen to our loved ones or to us.
The first time I became aware of how unprepared I was to walk someone I loved through the dying time was 1996. My husband Fred Lankard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March of that year and 100 days later he died.
Looking back, I see that it was a time of great confusion and helplessness and isolation and bewilderment. No one looking at us from the outside would have possibly guessed the depth of that.
After Fred’s death, I came across a book titled Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning. I am not Jewish, but I found myself envious of their rituals and traditions that make clear what is to be done by those grieving as well as those who are caring for the grieving. By doing what the law requires, the community reaches out to embrace and say, “You are not alone, we care about you.”