Lessons on Dying

I’m reading Cutting For Stone for book club. In it, a character mentions losing a parent after a long illness and that the parent first taught him how to live, and that now they were teaching him how to die.

When Dad was in hospice, the counselor on site (Who – coincidentally – knew my parents when they were married.) told my brother and I the same thing. The last lesson a sick parent can teach their child is how to die. I thought about it a lot at the time, as Dad was dying, and have returned to that thought since the book brought it up.

At first, I wasn’t sure what lessons I learned from the way Dad died. I thought at first – it was a lesson about giving up. Because Dad never even bothered to fight his cancer. But you know? I don’t think – after processing his death and my grief – that’s how I look actually at it. I just don’t see it like that anymore, anyway. That was my first instinct, I know, but even then I didn’t give it a lot of heart. There was no anger or bitterness there. Maybe disappointment, but not even disappointment in him not fighting. It was more just disappointment in the entire situation. That a man who raised two children alone, who lived his life so selflessly, would have to die in that way.

No…I don’t look at it as giving up. I look at it more about a lesson in Weighing the Odds. I’m a pro/con kind of person. Actually, I think I’m just a CON type of person. When weighing a decision, I imagine the worst-case scenario of either outcome. Which of those worst-cases would be the worst. Example – when talking to my brother recently about whether he should run a full-marathon or a half-marathon after an injury he sustained, I looked it it like this: Worst-case if you only run the half? You’ll be bitter with yourself and maybe down on yourself for not meeting your goal. BUT YOU’VE RUN THEM BEFORE, so the goal isn’t that huge anyway. Worst-case if you run the full? You hurt yourself again. And then you’re dealing with that for weeks if not months. To me? Worst-case was MUCH worse if he chose to run the full marathon. Of course, I’m lazy, so to me the better decision would be: Run the full marathon OR sit on my butt and eat donuts. And that – my friends – is a much easier decision to make.

With my Dad – he could have fought his cancer. But – let’s look at worst-case if he DIDN’T fight: He just dies peacefully in a residential hospice. If he DID fight? Worst-case would be more suffering (he was already in SO MUCH PAIN) just from the havoc the cancer had already reeked on his skeletal system, he would have dialysis for 3-4 hours 3 times a week (which he did twice and it was awful because of the previously mentioned skeletal pain), there would be the suffering from the chemotherapy itself, and then…THEN…worst-case? He dies anyway. So…just for kicks…let’s look at BEST case scenario for fighting the cancer. BEST case? EVERYTHING WOULD BE THE SAME. Minus the dying at the end. Basically, even if he was able to kill the cancer, he would have STILL been facing a lifetime of pain from the skeletal damage and a lifetime of dialysis which was already proving difficult. So – for my Dad? The BEST case of one choice was STILL worse than the worse case of the other. To my Dad? To die peacefully in a residential hospice was the easy choice.

His last few weeks after making his decision – the hardest part for him was the waiting. He joked when we asked him if he needed anything about getting someone to speed things up a bit. The waiting was hard on him. But he seemed at peace. He really liked the place he was in. He wasn’t at all talkative. We all talked the first day after he arrived, I guess it was “THE” talk you have with someone who has decided to die. But after that? There was almost no talking. He just spent his last weeks on earth in peace and quiet.

So, what did I learn about dying? I would say I learned not to be scared of it. Because if there is one thing I was very certain about? Is that my Dad did not fear death. Otherwise, the balance of the decisions would have been shifted. If he feared death? Then DEATH on the scale would have weighed a lot heavier than it did and might have counteracted the PAIN and MISERY on the other side. But for Dad? Who really didn’t have much of a view of the afterlife? Death was nothing to fear. I think that’s the most important lesson I learned from him. Whether or not I’ll keep it in mind if I’m ever facing death, I don’t know, but I do seem to have a calmness about it that I don’t think was there before. I think I am thankful for that lesson. I think – in terms of grand lessons my Dad taught me – the one that will probably have the biggest impact on my life? Is not to fear death. I had never really thought of it before the book brought it up again – but that is the last lesson my Dad taught me.

I just hope it’s not indicative of the struggles he faced raising two kids alone. Hopefully we didn’t make his life such hell that death was just an easier road. I mean – I know for damn sure I’m responsible for every gray hair he ever had. After dealing with ME as a teenager? Death at the hand of a bone-crushing cancer? Was probably cake.

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10 Responses

  1. -R- says:

    I choose between two options by considering worst case scenarios too.

    I’m glad your dad found some peace.

  2. Maggie says:

    I always appreciate your thoughtful posts. I would imagine your father took a very logical and statistical based approach to his decision. Each person has their own way of dealing with their diagnosis and supporting what they choose to do is not always easy. I struggle to support the decision to try every possible treatment even though the success rate is minuscule and the ill-effects are huge.

  3. Heather says:

    That was quite a last paragraph to a very serious post ;-) Our society is really so funny about dying (obviously not funny haha) but everyone seems to view it so, so differently, and I think too often people fight for the sake of fighting and hurt themselves and their loved ones when sometimes the best decision really is to let go. (Obviously quite different than your fairly young Dad, but my Granny had thyroid cancer that she decided not to fight for a lot of the same reasons – one of the biggest that she and Grampy would have to be separated for at least 6 weeks for her to do the radiation because it involved having to be in a bigger city…and decided she’d rather have the time with people she loved, and it was hard, so, so hard, Kim, but really, one of the better case scenarios that we could’ve hoped for. She had medication so that she wasn’t in pain, she was surrounded by those she loved, and once she was unconscious, she didn’t linger and waste away for months. She went to bed full-time on Sunday, and died Friday night. And I miss her. But I’m glad she got to die at home, with her family, and with her husband of 61 years by her side.)

  4. Kelly says:

    Dying with dignity and at peace – the best way to go, if you ask me. I think your dad chose the best case scenario for sure.

  5. lynne says:

    I’m really glad you came to this decision. I think your father was brave, he lived and died the way he wanted to do, and even if he did have cancer, he had some semblance of control. I watched my father die by degrees for eight years, so angry at the world. I agree, your father gave you a gift.

  6. Rebecca says:

    I drove by your old homeplace the other day and was shocked to see the house. I didn’t realize someone had bought it and flipped it. It looked cute, but not like the Moore homeplace. I sat in the driveway for a few, because that was the only thing still familiar. Anyway, didn’t know if you had seen it.

  7. G.G.R says:

    Lordie it struck a cord when you said your dad never even bothered to fight the cancer. My dad tried, half heartedly? He had lungcancer. It took years of me and mum begging him to see a doctor for him to actually go. On several occasions he would have coughing fits and hack up black stuff from his lungs mixed with blood. He didn’t go to the damn doctor until it was too fucking late. My dad was unhappy a lot of his life. His parents weren’t the best. He never really got over it; he carried it around and lashed out every now and then. I don’t believe dad REALLY wanted to live until it was too late. But at the same time I think he was ready to die. He took up smoking again in the last few weeks of his life. I knew then the premonition I had when I was 14 (that dad would die of lungcancer when I was still very young)was coming true.

    The way my dad died still brings me horrible nightmares even though it’s almost three years later. He died alone, in the kitchen. I dreamt he died that night, literally exactly when he was dying. Now, I dream at least once a week that I find him in time and either save him or just hold him as he dies. I cry in my sleep.

    Did I learn anything from this? No. I’ve been so traumatized by it that I’m constantly afraid of others dying. My dad died alone, in an awful way. In so much pain that not even the morphine pills he took could make them go. And he left me and my family in a pain that no pill can touch. I hope one day I can find the peace you have. I am hideously jealous!

  8. W. Scott Whitlock says:

    Hmmm…did my Dad teach me how to die? I have to say no. I’ve never really feared my own death anyway. I believe in an afterlife, but not a judgmental one. And not a conscious one. I will be gone. It will be over for me. The things that are me will go on to be something else, and that’s okay with me.

    What losing my dad did do, however, was shake any sort of peace I had with the world. After all, it was never my dying that scared me, but the deaths of those I love. I know this sounds psycho, but I see horror movies in my head since my dad died, of my loved ones dying and not being able to do anything about it. My dad’s death showed me that it could happen. Anything could happen. I can’t say that I have been sane since. Oh, I appear that way, but foundation has been shaken.

    There has been good that comes from this. I made a space for God in my life again. I opened my mind to spirituality. I am on a journey to peace. But I’m not there yet, and even now, almost three years later, I’m still broken right down to my core.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve been thinking about you and your dad lately, actually. (Is that weird? Since I don’t really know you?) My dady just died a couple of weeks ago in hospice care only a month after being diagnosed with cancer. This is so hard.

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