Weekly Edgework #37 - Mar. 15, 2005

Terminal Gift

The diagnosis of a terminal illness might be looked upon as a gift, instead of a curse. We all must die. But many have no warning that death is immanent. (Dr. Ira Byock, as quoted by Larry Hirst, The Carillon, January 27, 2005).

I have long reflected on how I would like to die. This is not a morbid exercise. Nor does it determine the manner in which my life will actually end. I suppose it is normal to think such thoughts when one is well past the mid-point of one’s earthly sojourn.

Some of my friends have suggested they would like to die in their sleep. You go to bed as usual and wake up on the other side of “the bar”. Second best might be to have your life snuffed out in an instant - in an accident or a heart attack. The awareness of your passing would last perhaps only a few seconds or a few minutes at the most. And then it would be over. No time for sad thoughts or parting words. Here today. Gone tomorrow. And life would simply move on for those who stay behind.

Relatively few have much good to say about being diagnosed with a terminal illness and sent home or to a palliative care facility to await one’s death. Most of us react with shock and disbelief when we hear of persons in such a situation. Oh, how terrible, we are inclined to think. Now they must live the rest of their lives with a death sentence hanging over them! But don’t we all? The only difference between terminally ill persons and healthy ones is that healthy persons tend to think that their death sentence can be postponed indefinitely. But during the months a terminally ill person consciously awaits death, hundreds of healthy persons die unexpectedly all across the land.

I am inclined to agree with Ira Byock and Larry Hirst that the diagnosis of a terminal illness might be looked upon as a gift instead of a curse. One might argue that this view only holds water for elderly persons who have had a long and productive life. We are inclined to think that nothing good can come of such news when it comes to a young person. I disagree. No matter what the age, to be able to die consciously is a gift – a gift that those who die in an instant never receive.

Persons living with terminal illness have time on their hands. Precious time to do those things they need to do to end life well. Of course it is not helpful if this time is given over to denial – no this can’t be happening to me, or resignation – oh well, here I lie and rot while others go about their normal lives. But if this new situation is embraced as a gift it allows persons to make the dying process a positive transition experience. Broken relationships can perhaps be healed. Open dialogue with others can validate the value and meaning your life has had. Dying persons can become very effective teachers for healthy persons around them by inviting them to walk with them toward their personal summits. Heart-felt good-byes can be said to those closest to you. Such partings will of course still be painful, but they also can be tinged with experiences both sweet and sublime. And, of course, there is the opportunity to walk consciously into the open arms of a loving God.

I find this kind of reflection helpful as well for those of us who are not terminally ill but also have a death sentence hanging over us. While the timing and circumstances of my death are not as clearly in focus as for those who have been declared terminally ill, I am challenged to live well daily in order to be prepared for death should it come suddenly. I also can accept this “in between time” as a gift. I can tell my wife, family and friends regularly that I love them. I can write notes of encouragement to them. I can try to keep my financial situation such that, if I should die, those left behind will not need to suffer unnecessarily. And I can walk with God daily with the confidence that He will walk with me during my final faltering steps when that time comes. And that time could come even before my terminally ill friend takes his last steps.

On November 26, 2004, my friend Henry was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was told that any treatment might prolong his life by a few weeks or months, but it was clear that this cancer would take his life. He chose to forego any further treatment except for pain control. I walked into Henry’s hospital room only a few minutes after the doctor bearing the news of his terminal illness had left. Henry and his wife Tina were still trying to absorb the reality of this news. Both spoke quietly about having suspected this verdict and were making plans for breaking the news to their family and friends. I was honored to be able to walk with them on these first faltering steps of Henry’s terminal journey.

As time progressed, Henry was transferred to a local hospital where I could visit him quite regularly. Gradually I became aware of how Henry was turning his verdict into a gift. He talked openly about the fact that he would soon be gone. He reflected on what life had meant for him and how he trusted God to walk with him right to the end. Many spoke of having been to Room 105, where Henry lay, and coming away encouraged and strengthened. In his times alone he wrote individual letters of farewell and blessing to his wife, Tina, as well as all his children and grandchildren. Henry died on January 26, 2005 – exactly two months after having been told he was terminally ill.

At the viewing service the night before the funeral, a friend sitting next to me asked me if I too had noticed a sense of peace pervading the gathering. Yes, I said, I did. There was no sense of shock or open anguish present. Henry had lived well and died well. We were all prepared to lay his body to rest. Yes there were tears, because the final parting still always hurts. But there was also a sense of fulfillment and celebration.

Thanks Henry, for teaching me that the diagnosis of terminal illness can be looked upon as a gift, instead of a curse.