“Raise your hand if you’re dying” is what I thought I heard the speaker say. A shocking way to start a Good Grief seminar, but isn't death the natural end to the life cycle? Inevitably it is going to happen to all of us. But somehow we think that if we don't admit it, accept it, talk about it, plan for it even, that we can keep death at bay. Remember Professor Randy Pausch? He traveled through his final days very publicly after discussing his fate during his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon. Have you ever wondered how your eulogy will read? We actually had to write one for ourselves my senior year in a high school English class. While it might seem like something we'd rather not talk about - the elephant in the room! - shouldn't we all be living as if we're dying? Because we are. We just don't know when.
This issue comes crashing my way every time I'm faced with the opportunity to counsel families through the grief process. One family in particular remains on my mind even though it's been more than 10 years. Back up for a moment to the year 2000. A new millennium with lots of anticipation, hoopla, and celebration. What were you doing in February? Anything special? Can you even remember February? It was February of 2000 when this family of five got the scary news: Dad. Has. Cancer. Life had thrown him a few curveballs before, but this was going to be a tough opponent. Cancer. The all-American family about to be torn apart by this devastating diagnosis.
I had the good fortune of meeting and working with this special family because dad's company relocated them with one of the nation's finest cancer treatment centers, M.D. Anderson, in mind. If he was going to fight, he deserved the best ammunition. Houston was where they needed to be to begin the battle. The moment he got the news, this 40-year-old dad made up his mind that he was going to live. He didn't know for how long, but he would do whatever it took, and that included, among other things, living each day as if tomorrow were his last. He sat at his desk and started to strategize.
He chose to meet this challenge by celebrating life rather than focusing on the incredibly frightening alternative. The couple did fun stuff like picking up the children from school in a stretch limousine out of the blue one day, like scheduling impromptu vacations to places like New Orleans, like checking into hotels on a whim to order room service, go swimming, and just be pampered. They rented a beach house in Galveston one weekend so that they could enjoy the sound of the waves, collect pretty shells, and watch the sun rise and set on the water. They had great talks about life and laughter and love. And they took a field trip to the University of Houston, where he helped them with college and career exploration. They picked up registration materials and walked through admission requirements together. He quizzed them on the particulars of the application process, and when they passed the test, he rewarded them with a U of H t-shirt. Together they planned the futures that he suspected he might not get to share with them. They crammed 10 lifetimes into just a few months. All the while, he was being treated for the cancer that was mercilessly eating him alive.
As an integral part of his game plan, this dad was writing his family a letter to address concerns like setting priorities and living life to its fullest. Things that matter. Things that he might not get to tell them in person as they aged. He started by saying that life is too short to sit around feeling sad. He encouraged them to make the right choices and enjoy life along the way. He advised them to choose their friends wisely, to stay in school and get a good education, and to meet life’s challenges head on. He told them to be brave and face the world with pride and determination. And while his words carried a lot of weight, it was his ability to do so that is such a tribute to his life in death.He passed away the day after Thanksgiving, on a Friday at 5:00. His wife told me that he used to love to kick off of work at 5:00 on Fridays, quitting for another week so that he could relish the beauty of the family life that he so enjoyed. His death so closely paralleled his life; he experienced so much peace as he prepared himself and his family for his death that he could rest assured that they would survive without him. They miss him so much.
I struggled to know what to say to these children. I found myself thinking that in a way they were lucky, because they had some warning and were able to say what needed to be said so that there were no regrets. But there's nothing lucky about losing your father. And there's certainly nothing lucky about having to suffer through cancer with him. I don't know if it was helpful to just hold their hands, give them a hug, or cry with them, but that's what I did as we visited in my office. I wanted to tell them that everything's going to be ok, but I couldn't get the words out from behind my tears. What a beautiful legacy he left for his family in the wake of his tragically-quick passing. From his story, I’m reminded that as we go through life, we need to live as if we're dying. Michael Josephson advises that we think about what you want people to say at your funeral and live life backward. Because the end is as certain as life is unpredictable, and we never know when we would die to have just one more day. What will you do with your tomorrow?