Tag Archive: Death and Dying


Back in 2019, I would have never imagined my body’s survival into 2021. I expected to have already seen Heaven’s pearly states, a thorough life review, and some final judgment, a curt, quick command, “Away with ye.” Two months into 2021, I can honestly attest that this has been a year of death, just not mine.

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Nearly every person with a significant disease experiences peaks and valleys. One is likely to have weeks or months when everything is fantastic, bringing some level of normalcy. There are other times when you understand what’s coming is damn serious. I would categorize this past Thursday [February 11] as ‘other.’

I had been on a plateau for weeks, a state of neither God awful nor wonderfully great. Suddenly, I felt wet. It turns out I was bleeding. I had uncontrolled rectum bleeding oozed from the rectum and a dull pain emanated from the lower left part of the abdomen, probably either in or near the sigmoid colon. Diverticular bleeding occurs in the colon and produces bright red or maroon bowel movements.

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During my first big job during my 20’s, I overheard my coworker Jamie crying two cuticles away. I could only hear one side of the conversation, his. From the nature of his tears, his father had been diagnosed ‘terminal.’ The same scene repeated over several days, to which, at one point, I thought, “Get over it. Everyone dies.”

I wasn’t as appalled at myself then as I am now. Being ‘terminal’ tends to alter one’s perspective significantly. after surviving life in a military rescue squad, I arrogantly grew to believe I could live forever, that I was invincible. Rescue that person from the edge of a cliff? Sure. No problem. Deactivate that a piece of unexploded World War II ordinance without blowing oneself to bits? Sure. No problem.

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Thank You/Thank You Not

One of the most frequent questions any of us answer nearly every day is “How are you?” Since only a handful of people know that I’m a bald, fat man on a short leash, I clench my teeth, pretend a smile and say something utterly 70’s-ish, “Groovy.” The days could be like today, near frigid conditions, blizzard, the roads suck, and bleeding from a hemorrhoid. But damn it, I still say, “Groovy.” If I want to add sarcasm, I might add ‘F***’n’ just before ‘groovy.’

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Here’s the deal. I have a conundrum of thoughts. These thoughts are in no particular order. As a result, my readers will have to accept a free form of ‘whatever’ today. Blog writer Julie Williams once said she felt brokenly alive. If two words ever summarized my life at this moment, ‘brokenly alive’ would be them.

I know it’s only February, but 2021 has been a crappy year. Not only was I was extremely ill for a large portion of January, but several people I have known and loved have died: My father, several coworkers, and my first wife (whom I loved dearly). And then my ex-mother-in-law suffered a catastrophic stroke. My ex-wife’s death hit hard. So hard that although I am supposed to be dying, I keep living. Survivor’s guilt is shredding my soul. 

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Most begin the New Year almost precisely where we left the old year. Same for you, same for me. Sure we pause during that small sliver of time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. We reflect, evaluate priorities, and baseline ourselves to our’ true north.’ After much reflection, we begin where we left off. A friend’s resolution was to start anew, to ‘cease and desist’ she proclaimed. She vowed never to read another romance novel. Late evening of January 1st, I received the following text, “I failed.” Another promised to purchase all leftover 2020 calendars and burn them. Unsure if that resolution is achievable, I touted, “Good Luck. Oh. You can have mine for starters.” Then there are business resolutions. One user posted, “Put on a full outfit for Zoom calls (although business-on-top-PJs-below never hurt anyone).” Large or small, everyone has a list of to-do’s from the prior year. And that’s usually where we usually start.

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My review of a Canadian Armed Forces report of their effort to assist Ontario long-term care facilities early in the pandemic left me soul searching. There’s a general presumption that the Canadian healthcare COVID response (and therefore, healthcare) may be a solid model for the U.S. to emulate. Some colleagues openly question whether the U.S. should follow that model. In reviewing the Canadian COVID response, I found that, in fact, the U.S. mirrored many aspects of the Canadian response. Unfortunately, much of it was the worst aspects. 

The Canadian Armed Forces published report (Ontario) contains nightmarish scenes; residents abandoned in beds for weeks or force-fed until they choked. Residents with dementia allowed to wander at will through buildings rampant with the virus. At a facility just north of Toronto, residents were “crying for help” for as long as two hours before receiving assistance. Some had not been bathed for weeks, and “significant gross fecal contamination” was the norm.

A warning to readers: The report was difficult to read. Having a father who was in Hospice, there were times I had to walk away. My intent is not to disparage the Canadian medical system. Just like the U.S., there are many wonderful clinicians and facilities. But the report offers critical lessons. More importantly, on a personal level, there was one question I often asked myself repeatedly: ‘Where was God?’ And for the broader audience, ‘For those suffering from dementia, is God there?’ 

When Jesus walked, people didn’t experience dementia or Alzheimer’s as we know it today. They died. In fact, the average life expectancy was 35. Infant mortality was huge. Subtract infant mortality and archaeologists indicate lifespan jumped to 50. In her book “Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit,” author Jodi Magness summarized life in Jesus’ day: It was a “filthy, malodorous and unhealthy” world. A case of the flu, a bad cold, or an abscessed tooth would often kill. That was His world. COVID-19 is ours.

For Christian and non-Christian alike, Jesus is seen as a model of care for the sick. Needless to say, when caring for someone with coronavirus, one should take the necessary precautions in order not to pass on the infection. Phillip Yancey noted that “… for Jesus, the sick or dying person was not the ‘other,’ not one to be blamed, but our brother and sister. When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was “moved with pity.” As such, Jesus remains a model for how to care during a crisis: a heart moved by sympathy.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, the Spirit of God intercedes (speaks within), sometimes in sighs too deep for words. Could someone with Alzheimer’s experience God at a non-conscious and non-verbal level? Perhaps this is God’s calling to us to cradle and love without expectation of conscious response or reciprocity. As caregivers, sometimes we must provide without hope of return. Bear one another’s burdens, the Bible would say. The response Jesus emulates is to bear the burdens of those we touch (just as He). 

In his book Night, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel described witnessing the agonizingly slow death of the Dutch Oberkapo’s pipel, a young boy hanged for collaborating against the Nazis.

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

For more than half an hour [the child in the noose] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”

So where is God? Here’s here. He’s here in our dementia. He’s here in our COVID. He’s here in the world. We are His emotional incarnation, we are called to follow His example. Sure, sometimes God does enter and occasionally performs a miracle, and thereby offers strength to those in need. But mainly God relies on us, His agents, to do His work in the world. We are asked to live out the life of Christ in the world, not just to refer back to it or describe it. We are to announce his message, work for justice, pray for mercy . . . and suffer with the sufferers. And when we do this, even those suffering from dementia will know God lives, that the spirit awakens and we can help one find the path homeward.

So, where is God? He’s right here. In our suffering, in empathy, and in love.

My trek through this disease reminds me of Vinko Bogataj. On March 7, 1970, A Wide World of Sports captured Bogataj’s third jump on the Heini Klopfer hill. Midway down Bogataj realized the ramp had become too fast. Attempting to lower his center of gravity and stop, he lost his balance, flew out of control, tumbled multiple times and crashed through a retaining fence before halting. Coordinating producer Dennis Lewin inserted Bogataj’s crash to coincide exactly with the words ‘… and the agony of defeat.’ (You can see the clip on YouTube’s Wide World of Sports intro, about the 13 second mark.) Life is filled with the cyclical nature of ‘the thrill of victory’ and ‘the agony of defeat.’ As you walk, almost everyone understands this yin and yang.

Everyone continually proceeds through the cyclic process of suffering and recovering from defeat.  At face value, 2020 seems loaded with fear, anxiety, and other hatred. And unlike the Stella Artois ‘Daydream’ commercial (which admittedly, I’ve personally viewed over 60+ times) the path remains uncertain. The journey is daunting.  You smile, restate a Psalm, Bible verse, famous quote, wear your charm, spew positive thoughts (because that’s what’s expected), but inside, 2020’s tastes like f’ing vomit.  I sometimes think everyone else is somehow favored, for they are free from my 30 years of pain. They are free of a death sentence that beckons at a moment’s notice. They are free from everything being ‘the last.’ 

I understand the felon’s torture. This morning would be the last cup of tea, the last good night’s sleep, the last great shower, the last great meal, the last great smile, the last thought, the last despair, and the last snippet of hope. Eventually, we crash. Life ends. And our last reach unto heaven remains inconclusive. “Do you think he made it into God’s hands?” “Unsure,” mumbles another. The notion that some find grace and beauty in every fall is a matter of perspective.  

No one ever knew me as someone who knew how to fall, but like Bogataj, I got up every time.  I also realized laughter saved many a day. Why? Because it can save the day. There’s a great deal of evidence that laughing improves both mental and physical health. Getting fired in 2010 was a horrific experience. After nearly six (6) weeks self-flagellation, I started to laugh. Captain Gerald Coffee was a POW for seven years during the Vietnam War. He claims he and the other American soldiers he was imprisoned with found solace in laughter, and it helped them make it through the harrowing experience.

I began laughing at my experience, the ridiculousness of taking one medical test after another with little hope of ever detecting that ‘fatal blood clot’ lying in wait to claim my life. Life’s absurdity, and all that could go wrong, deserve a laugh. A medical clinician recommended I eat a healthier diet. “You’ll be healthier,” she stated. Catching her error, “Oh. Sorry.” We busted out laughing. Comedian Demetri Martin once said, “The worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades, especially if your teammates are bad guessers.” Fortunately, I hope I’m not one of those who can be improved only via death. Therefore, I embrace the notion that laughter allows joy to flow into an otherwise joyless situation and forces fear out.  And with joy comes gratitude and love and hope. 

I simply let go of fear. Sure I think of death. Quite a lot in fact. I don’t fill my life with repetitive rehashing of what-might-have-been. I figure God will justifiably judge my arse in due time. I have to rejoice in what is, a simple cup of coffee, in friendships and love. I reach for hope, laughter of the soul, and unknowingly, even the most mirthless of situations can become sunnier.

I know it’s hard to find laughter and joy during fearful and self-doubting moments. Kobe Bryant once said, “I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I’m like, ‘My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don’t have it. I just want to chill.’ We all have self-doubt. You don’t deny it, but you also don’t capitulate to it. You embrace it.”

Thus, my end life journey continually searches for the man (God) who will profoundly affect my life. He will probably review my life, painfully cry at some moments, and laugh at the most absurd failures. And from those moments within ‘the agony of defeat,’ God will embrace ‘the thrill of victory.’ In that moment, I shall no longer recognize the person from years past, for I will become anew. And looking behind me, I will see thousands of others just like me.

Is it possible for God to look upon human frailty and feel compassion? Some days I wonder. I wonder if He remembers what it’s like to walk the earth, see the pain, look upon the hunger, go back to heaven and ask what’s for dinner. Meatloaf? “Great.” Wine from a heavenly vineyard? “Awesome.” Regardless of what God thinks, I am exhausted. Simply, going to the doctor for a blood draw or through a supermarket feels like a gargantuan task. I no longer walk, I shuffle. Rigidity and sagging stomach drooling over my belt graces anyone who dares to stare. Doing any more than two tasks at the same time is challenging. Back in the safety of my car, I lay against the headrest and thought of the previous week. I completed the task at hand—preparing for inevitability.

I spent this past week saying goodbye. Sure, I should have started this shortly after receiving a terminal diagnosis nearly two years ago. Remember? The days when I could still leap from a couch, hold a coffee cup, a plate with a bagel while simultaneously carrying on a conversation via Bluetooth headset. “Death? What death?” I sometimes smirked. “Dude, that’s like a couple years away,” a defiant inner voice responded. Continuing, “A lot of things could happen between then and now. Miracles could occur. And I could be one of them.” I wasn’t.

If you’ve read my blog, you’ve known I never believed in miracles from some Devine interceder were meant for me. I pretty much accepted my fate, even now. I just knew that whatever time I had left, it could be the last time to experience. Flying to see my mother and father, flying to see my brother, that beach walk on the Florida Panhandle, the desert sky, and that walk with Skip, my father’s dog. Just as my doctors said, I always knew I could be within weeks, days or hours of death. The October 19th event brought clarity. 

For the 60 years of life, my family consisted of four: my father, mother, brother, and I. We grew up, went on to extend our inner circle, but at its core, there were just us four. 2021 brings a future of absences, absences that will weave through the family core as my father and I are likely to depart. My parents will never have another child and my brother will never have another brother.  I looked at 60 years of documents spread across the Livingroom floor, deciding what to send, what to trash, what to donate. Yesterday, my life finished with 499 pieces of documents stuffed into a folder that will be distributed when I’m near death or dead. 

Even in death, my will will continue on earth, at least for a brief moment. There will be bills to be paid, assets to transfer, assets to sell, writings to be mused of, and potential awakenings with “What the hell possessed him to do that?” When people look at this material, I hope the world knows I approached my finality with clarity, that decisions were made from a position of reason, intellect, compassion, honesty and love. Looking through the pictures and documents, I notice how feelings are difficult to discover—and often even more difficult to acknowledge. Yet hidden in the deepest feeling is a higher truth. Many will find a sense that finally that “f***ing bastard is gone.” Even in anger, it was my goal for love to live and survive.

Sure, I’ve seen the same basic instincts in others facing death. An eighty-year old nun who talked about God’s penchant for miracles as a cough settled in; died two days later from COVID. Then a close friend, an Emergency Room Chaplin, who feared no such thing a COVID because she always took precautions, wrote via email to update us on her struggle to breathe after COVID diagnosis. In truth, I am not that desperate to stay alive.  

While I did have a blood draw this morning, I didn’t need the test to tell me if a treatment is working.  I can feel life’s edge.  The climax closes quickly and inherently, I have an internal knowing I will stop soon.  As such, I can feel for those who will unwillingly envision a life without me. My heart aches but I don’t know how to help. As I finished sorting my life, I accepted that there’s a part of the preplanning process that cannot be resolved. One can resolve logistical problems of death, but how does one alleviate pain? My mother will suffer. And maybe for a fleeting moment, my brother will as well. Nothing I say or do will help as much as time. The laws of planetary evolution don’t allow one to relive dreams. To those who hurt, time will be your friend. It will remove the intensity of the hottest of rage and, yes, even the most heartbreaking sorrow. It will heal you. And you will become free to live again.

I told my case worker I had several dreams of telling people I was dying. I am not sure if the prognosis of dying actually initiates such ‘death’ type of dreams or not. However, having worked in a hospital I have encountered terminal patients who shared that their dreams and visions felt realistic. Many related visions of past meaningful experiences and reunions with loved ones, and those who reassured and guided them. Others reported feeling as if they were preparing to go somewhere.  My dreams fell into the second category.

One dream seemed appeared like walking through a black fog. There was no light (maybe enough light to understand I was walking through fog), no pain, no hatred, no hell, no fire. Just a dark fog. I did not envision life was going to be destroyed. Nor did I fear death. I was sort of assessing the fog, the steps required to exit it, that I should follow this ‘intuitively’ known path. If I did, I would exit and move on to whatever was next. This intuitively known path offers much insight. All dreams offered a similar message: time is short.

I noted one particular dream of interest. I followed a child, who held a letter proclaiming life would end six weeks later. The child did not walk in fear but busied himself by looking for the room to report. When experiencing such dreams, many claim it is the internal soul processing all the events occurring. Others turn to Internet dream analysis and equate some deeper meaning. And many might roll over and slumber out some words, “That was weird,” drink some water, and go back to sleep for another round. I took all of it as a message.

Up front, there’s no indication that I am going to die within six weeks. There is also no indication I won’t die in six weeks either. If I did there was only six weeks, I have five left, for the dream of the child occurred last weekend. Since I am a walking timebomb (my non-medical techie word), that could check out (blow-up) at any moment, I must be prepared. I have to understand that my family needs to know my finances, where to get access, where can one store documentation, etc. Therefore, this week has been a non-stop action of lists. Even in death, life is a list.

There are lists for everything: pre-flight checklists, project checklists, camping lists, grocery lists, bucket lists, start of school lists, moving lists, packing lists, medication lists, household todo lists, babysitting lists, and so on. Preparing to die has a list. Once I started, my list grew exponentially as the  week evolved. I started with a simple Internet list of 7 things needed when you learn you’re terminally ill. Some things included a second opinion, treatment options, disease course, symptom management, bucket lists, hospice and how I would like to die. Here’s the additions:

  • Health Insurance coverage and details;
  • Printed Health Summary (list of your medical infirmities) ;
  • Last will and testament (Don’t have one? Get one.);
  • Work transition list;
  • List of contact numbers, including work, Human Resources, and supervisors;
  • Storage location for scanned files that can be accessed by my executor;
  • List of passwords for key accounts;
  • Last Letter (The Stanford Letter Project) to loved ones;
  • Last blog post;
  • Medical consent list, including a sub-list of Do Not Resuscitate (DNR), living will, no code treatment, spiritual counseling (last rites), plan of care, etc.;
  • Bill Payment list, including credit cards, utilities, bank account passwords, account key questions, special PINs, and copies of statements;
  • List of turn off auto-refills or auto subscriptions;
  • Car maintenance schedule list;
  • Veterans Benefit changes;
  • Change property title transfer to beneficiary (If you rent, lease information);
  • List of drafted letters to all credit bureaus;
  • Letters to credit card companies terminating accounts (to let them know you’re dead and that Platinum Amex card is not accepted in heaven);
  • List on securing Passports, ID Cards, Driver’s License and other ID materials;
  • Turbo Tax passwords and past five years of taxes;
  • Car Title transfer;
  • List of email accounts/services to cancel, Facebook, and other online services to cancel;
  • Social Security Administration Information;
  • List of E-Trade accounts and other relevant information, listing statements, ensure beneficiaries are properly stated and net worth (which either shows you’re beneficiaries will adore you or confirm you’re worth the paper the statement was printed on);
  • List of any 401K plans and beneficiary information;
  • Deferred compensation and beneficiary information;
  • List of local Hospice information and basic interviewing of hospice; and
  • List of cremation services;
  • List of items for storage, selling, or donation; and
  • Lists of people to inform I am terminal (nah)

I admit, as of today, I have 90% of the above list(s) complete. I feel terrific. The lists of life are not easy, but they must be checked off. Get prepared. Live your life like you’ll die tomorrow, but build a document repository that will help your benefactors. Then plan your life as though you’ll be here for another 50 years.

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