Thursday, February 05, 2009


I vividly remember the end of the movie—and the tears that streamed from the corners of my eyes. After the credit’s were rolling, I drug myself out to my grandma’s dining room where my parents were talking in a fit of emotion & vowed that I would never again watch “All Dogs Go to Heaven”.

It was right after my beloved PeeWee died.

And I’ve kept that promise. Though, oddly enough, the kidlike hope found in that movie moved me in such a way at my ripe young age that the memory has never left me. From early on, I knew death was a serious matter.

My grandparents, friends, & other family members have sporadically traded their Earthly bodies for one more permanent. The years of my teenagehood weren’t without funerals, memorial services, & surprising news of unexpected deaths—whether friends, family, or someone who knew someone I knew.

Like most people, the grip of death didn’t take hold until later. Months, usually. When I realized that Grandpa wasn’t going to send me Twix anymore. Or that sailing trips were a thing of the past. Or that there wouldn’t be anymore splashing in Maui waves with one hilarious red-swimsuit clad man.

It took awhile for the gravity of the situation to sink in. And to be honest, I’m not sure if I ever let it sink in completely.

I came to understand that death was something that happened. WE ALL DIE at some point. In fact, we were born to die—life on this Earth is not permanent (thank God!). I certainly didn’t fear death—it was something that happened…to someone else. But the magnitude, the reality, the process of dying—of my own death—was something that up until this year I didn’t let myself ponder.

And since my experiences in the halls of the hospital with terminal pneumonia patients, sepsis, men & women on ventilators, codes, a mother’s worst nightmare, and innocence lost, death has knocked on my door more than once. There have been more nights than I can count where I lay awake at night, unable to sleep, unable to understand it all.

Not that I expect to have all the answers—or even look for them. But some of my patient’s deaths seem so…unjustified, unfair, unexpected.

And the truth is that I am terrified. Of my own death. Alone. Of my husband’s death, leaving me alone. Of the death of my parents, my siblings, my friends. When all whom I love have gone before me, it seems there should be little joy left to be found. Which is why I don’t understand why, in medicine, we visit the elderly in nursing homes to fill them full of happy tablets after the death of everyone closest to them leaves them depressed...why, in medicine, we expect the grieving widow to find solace in a blue pill with each meal when her partner & best friend has left her house quiet & her bed empty…why, in medicine, we stand over the chair of an expectant husband whose wife was just brought in by ambulance & leave him in his own silent grief when we tell him the woman he married is naked, blue, & lifeless in the room next door.

Happy tablets don’t bring them back.
Pills don’t take away the pain.
Silence doesn’t make the dead breathe again.

In my opinion, the culture of our no-I-can’t-wait country has lead to the desire for an “instant fix”. But I can’t help but put myself in that widow’s shoes…in her bed…in her house. And if Jon marches off to war & doesn’t return, I want to grieve. I need to grieve. I don’t want blue pills with my meals—in fact, chances are good I won’t want meals at all. I don’t want silence or solitary embraces with empty remarks of sorrow—I want real, live moans because the love of my life is no longer in my life.

There are no instant fixes. And there is no easy way to approach the subject. Death is real…and, at some point, will hit all of us with full-no-looking-back fury.

I’m still emotional about my patients--& even more emotional about my husband marching off to war. Often times, I have to excuse myself from the room so my tears aren’t evident—for most, there isn’t much worse than a crying doctor.

But I can’t lose that reality, those raw fits of emotion. I can’t be too quick to wipe away those tears that stream from the corners of my eyes. Because for me, there is nothing that can contain the unbridled torment of reality…the reality that tomorrow may not come for all of us…the reality that life is fleeting…the reality that, at the end of the day, we’ve wasted the past 24 hours in selfish pursuits.

“Death is not the greatest loss in life.
The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”
–Norman Cousins

Recommended reading: Fear of Dying, Healed Release, Live Ready, Make Pearls

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