What I learned watching my aunt die well

SELF | 11 mins

It’s March 11th, and I am sitting in the hospital watching one of the most important people in my life struggling to breathe.

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At the same moment, I had two thoughts:

  1. It’s OK to go, Kathy. I don’t want to see you in this kind of pain.
  2. Don’t go, Kathy. I am not exactly sure how to do life without you.

The person in that hospital bed was my Aunt Kathy Beechem. For my entire 46 years on earth she had been an integral part of my life. She was my godmother twice (once as an infant and once as an adult). She was the fun aunt who would babysit me. She was the successful businesswoman who mentored and taught me. She was one of my chief advocates. She was the one who taught me how to pray to God. She was my co-worker in ministry. She was always in my corner showing me unconditional love.

So when she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in January, I was crushed. And when her body quickly fell victim to the disease, I was devastated. And when she died, I fell into a deep and dark funk that I am still trying to climb out from under. So this article is half me trying to process what happened and half me trying to share with you the things that I learned on that quick, two-month journey from 100% health to death.

It was during that very short two-month window that I learned that shortness of time and shortness of breath create clarity in so many places.

Everything you are going to read below is common sense that we all kind of know, but that we try to not think about often. Ironically, we would all live a much fuller life if we kept these truths close to the surface. So here are some of the truths of life that I learned as I watched Aunt Kathy die well.

Most of the things we worry about aren’t worth worrying about. As Kathy got sick, it became hard for her to talk. She was always short of breath. So communication was focused and intentional. There was very little small talk; there wasn’t time for that. With limited time left and limited ability to communicate, it becomes very clear in your head what is important and what is not important. It is during those communications that it became clear that the day-to-day stuff that normally takes so much of our time and attention is really not important at all.

Suddenly it becomes abundantly clear that the most important things in life are actions that need taken to take care of each other and actions that need taken to express our love for each other. Kathy’s last words to me were to take care of my mom (her sister) and to take care of her sick friend. Those are the things we think about with a scarcity of time. Day-to-day problems and activities that can absorb us are often just robbing us from time to focus on the important things in life. It is common sense, but it is not how I usually live. I get way too distracted on the urgent and unimportant, and I spend way too little time on the non-urgent and incredibly important.

Unresolved issues taken to the grave will haunt. It becomes very easy to see that fights and differences that separate family and loved ones in earlier years feel silly when staring at your own death. You don’t grieve the difference as much as you grieve the time lost with loved ones because of fights over largely unimportant things. We all know family and friends that drift apart from each other because our politics are different, our religious beliefs are different, etc. As you stare at death, it becomes clear how insignificant those differences appear compared to the loss of time spent with loved ones. If only we could all have that clarity earlier in life. If a loved one dies before resolution comes, that will haunt you forever. None of us know how much time we or our loved ones have left. So it seems like a little bit of perspective would allow us all to operate in a place of greater grace for each other. I saw loved ones take differences to the grave with Kathy and the regret is profound. Let’s find ways to reconcile and give grace.

There are very few atheists when watching a loved one die. My family comes from various places on religion and spirituality. I can tell you one thing: Everyone in the family had to wrestle with those beliefs as they sat by Kathy’s bedside and watched her die. It is such a sacred time as you sit and watch someone’s spirit leave their body. It is impossible not to ask all of the hard questions that come to our heads at that time. Where is Kathy going now? Is she anywhere? Can she see us once she is gone? Will I see her again? How is death part of God’s plan? All of us have to wrestle with those questions, but we generally do a great job of avoiding those thoughts or questions as often as possible in our normal days. It is impossible to avoid them as you watch a loved one die. My experience was that as Kathy died full of faith and praising her God, it caused many around her to challenge what they believed. Her one request for her funeral was that we “preach the damn Gospel.” She wanted to make sure everyone knew what she believed. Even in her last breaths, she was forcing people to ask those hard questions.

All of those are all great questions for us to wrestle with, and it sharpens our perspective on life if we work hard to wrestle those questions to the ground. It brings clarity to our purpose in life. It is important perspective to have as we make life choices.

Americans don’t know how to grieve, and the system doesn’t allow it. Even in those times of death, Americans do a great job of staying busy and avoiding wrestling with those questions. Minutes after Kathy died, we were immediately whisked away and forced to make all kinds of decisions. Where did we want the body sent? What type of funeral were we going to do? Where is she going to be buried? What goes on the gravestone? The pace right after a death is nonstop. The decisions feel overwhelming and unending. All you want to do is lay down, cry, and grieve. But there is no time for that. Too much to do. It is so easy to see how broken our American culture is when you go through that experience. You wind up sprinting for a week instead of grieving. How have we allowed this to be the system for ourselves when loved ones die? You have to fight for the time to grieve, and if you don’t (like I didn’t) you will come to regret it. It’s amazing how even in death the busyness of life can take our eye off of the important and put it on the urgent.

You will see the best and the worst of people in these times. Be prepared for it, and give grace. It’s partially because everyone is under stress, and everyone is grieving, and everyone is thrown into this system that is awful for grieving (see paragraph above), but the worst comes out. I had friends go way out of their way to let me know I was loved during these times. I also had some of the most insensitive and hurtful things said to me during this time. My advice for all of us is this: If a friend or family member is going through grief, just tell them that you love them and try to do one thing for them that lets them know they are loved. Be willing to sit in silence with them and give them space to grieve and pick them up when they need help.

There are no U-Hauls following hearses. Kathy lived several careers, but in her earlier years she made plenty of money. It became obvious quickly that none of that money could save Kathy. It could not restore her health. She couldn’t take it with her when she was gone. I believe Kathy understood that the stuff we leave behind can bring out the worst in our loved ones after we’re gone. That is why the majority of her “stuff” is being donated to the couple of charities that she was the most passionate about. They were places that she knew well and understood the work that they did. She wanted it to make a difference in the world after she was gone. That is the way to manage your money. It puts into perspective the value we put on creating wealth during our life and the ending impact that wealth has on friends and families. Our resources can make a difference but it is not the legacy we leave (see below).

The only impact that lasts is what you plant in other people. Kathy had an unending energy to build into other people and to help people in times of trouble. Building into others is the only lasting legacy. I got to see that firsthand through the hundreds of people that reached out to me after Kathy’s death. They came and kept coming. They are still coming to me to tell their stories of how Kathy helped them. No one came to me and said, “I am so sorry for your loss.” They came to me and said, “I am so sorry for your loss, I will never forget Kathy because…” It was the things that were said after the comma that I will remember. Just some of the things that came after that comma were:

  • She taught me how to pray.
  • She taught me how to be a female leader.
  • She helped my cousin that was struggling with mental health issues.
  • She taught me how to hear the voice of God.
  • She gave me money to get back on my feet after I had been knocked down.
  • She taught me how to stick up for myself.
  • She taught me how to journal.
  • She helped me get out of an unhealthy relationship.
  • She baptized me.
  • She taught me how to read the Bible.
  • She brought me to church for the first time, and it changed the trajectory of my life.
  • She taught me to believe that life could be good again.
  • She taught me how to grieve the loss of my husband.

Those are the things that will last after she is gone. Those are ways you change the world for years and years and even generations. Those are the things that we should all be focused on if we want to have a legacy. How much time are we spending focusing on who we are building into and how we are impacting lives?

As Kathy was quickly dying, and time and words became scarce, all of these became much more clear to me. Avoid the noise and confusion of everyday life. Find time to ponder what is important and not just what is urgent. Focus on giving grace more quickly and loving people more easily. We are only on Earth for a short time. Focus on the eternal truths and helping people. Spend less time creating wealth in areas that are fleeting. Find the folks that you can build into and do it. You have the power in your hands to change the course of people’s lives for generations just by being present and loving them well.

Written by Michael Whelan on Jul 11, 2019
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...

For each of these questions, try to keep the perspective the author shared by imagining you had a week to live.

  1. What do you worry about that is just not worth worrying about? How could you let it go?

  2. Who do you need to forgive? Who do you want to take better care of?

  3. How do you want to be remembered? How can you start increasing that legacy now?

Challenge

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