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Fear dictates our feelings about a great many things, especially death and dying. Death is something we try to outrun our entire lives, but because we don’t keep our end time in sight, many of us don’t live our best lives.

I’ve already realized my biggest fears—my two husbands died and I’ve had cancer—so death holds no fear for me.

I sometimes think those of us who’ve received a cancer diagnosis are not as afraid to talk about death as those who haven’t. Many friends and family don’t know what to say to us, much less want to hear our thoughts about death.

Several years after I married James I learned my ex-boyfriend had lung cancer. The last time I’d seen him, this brilliant Princeton grad was being stuffed into a police car for violating my protection order. When I heard about his diagnosis, I asked James if he’d mind if I called him.

The next day I went to the hospital where I learned his newly diagnosed lung cancer had metastasized to his brain. When his doctors forbid him to drive, I took him to chemo, helped him grocery shop, and when he and his family couldn’t bring themselves to ask how long he had to live, I had that conversation with his doctors, then with him and his family.

The day he died his friend called and asked me to come. “You’re so good with him,” she said. “He’s always better after you leave.” When I arrived his eyes were closed, and the blankets pulled up under his chin. His head was covered in a ski cap. For two hours I held his hand and reminisced about our six years together.

“Remember when we drove to Memphis in that wicked rainstorm while we listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland?” His hand stirred lightly in mine. I wondered if it was a coincidence or if he’d heard me. “And what about the time we windsurfed around the oil tanker and the wind died? We paddled for hours in the dark. I wasn’t sure we’d ever reach that tiny light on the beach.” Again his hand moved, but this time, I knew he’d heard me.

The whole time his family and friends stayed in the living room as though his bedroom were the portal to the dark side. I remember thinking if I left, would anyone know when he died?

“The necklace you bought me in the Yucatan? I still wear it.” His eyelids fluttered. I knew a minister had been to see him earlier in the week—when he was fully conscious—and had baptized him. “I know there’s a God. Of that, I am certain. Your family’s here, and they love you. It’s okay to let go and be with God.” I felt his hand stir in mine for what would be the last time.

James went with me to the memorial service. That night as I removed the necklace my ex-boyfriend had bought me, the clasp broke. Grey stones and tiny brass beads hit the floor and rolled in every direction.

As I tried to retrieve them, I wondered if it was coincidental, or maybe he was saying goodbye.

If you know someone who’s dying, remember… They’re still among the living. While you may be uncomfortable with their impending death, don’t ignore them. Don’t be afraid to tell them what they’ve meant to you, what you will remember about them. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say” or “What can I do for your family?” And if you cry? Big wup! At least they will know you care.

Every death should be a wakeup call for the rest of us to live our best lives, and in the process, to lessen our fear of dying.

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42 thoughts on “ARE YOU AFRAID OF DEATH?”

  1. Our oldest….the attorney,,,write at down ,,,i will take care of it…(does wills all the time)
    The youngest..the special education administrator,..Mom telll me want you and Dad want…im listening…..just celebrate what we have enjoyed….taught….our legacy is you…and those we have maybe brought the joy into their lifes.

    • Joyce, Your children are indeed a reflection of you. I’m guessing the reason they want to know more about your feelings is because that’s the kind of person you are. Brava for raising such caring people! Thank you, Brenda

  2. Big wup indeed. Just this morning I laid in bed thinking about my age and realizing that it’s only going to get tougher and tougher every year. Death will be a more frequent uninvited guest. Do we bar the door or do we set an extra place at the table?

    Your essay is quite beautiful and so are you.

    • You’re sweet, Mithra. Thank you. We can’t bar the door. No matter what we do, death will find us. That said, let’s not set an extra place at the table, either. There’s no rush and we don’t need to “welcome” it. Just don’t fear it. Many doctors and hospice workers say death is a transition… there’s something on the other side. xoxox, Brenda

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with death Brenda. I think we are all in some denial about death actually happening to us. I have had a few bad diagnoses in the past 2 years which have helped to waken me up from my “I will never die” mind. Such a lovely experience you offered your ex! What an amazing friend you are. Have you heard of Stephen Levine? He worked with the dying for decades. You might benefit from reading his books like “Healing in to Life and Death.”

    • Laura, I know you’ve had some health problems in recent years. It’s a shock and depressing when we feel our mortality. I think that really begins to happen when we start losing our friends. My mother became more depressed than usual when her friends started dying. She outlived them all. A friend of mine who’s a hospice worker told me about Stephen Levine. Thanks for mentioning his book. Others may read your comment and benefit from it. I hope you’re doing better in your beautiful Colorado. xoxox, Brenda

    • Thank you, Pat. From what I’ve seen the dying process is nothing to fear. God has a way of easing us down the road. It’s harder on those of us left behind… for now. Brenda

  4. Having buried my mom, as an only child, was peaceful to me. My mom had endured 9 months of Dementia and my days were filled with ER visits, suicidal tendencies and ignorance by so many professionals in the field. I knew my Mom would have never wanted to live as she was, so when I received the phone call from my husband, as I was in Washington DC celebrating and helping my youngest daughter and son-in-law with their first baby, a girl. I felt a sense of relief. Not for me, but for my mom. Her suffering was done. I began to think of her impact in my life now as a Nana of 7 and that gave me strength. For a few days, there were 4 generations of females in my family, and I cherished that thought. I also cherished my new little sweet grandchild. I told her all her “Gigi”, and all of the wonderful times we had shared. My visit was cut short, as I needed to get back to plan my Mom’s funeral, but I left with the knowledge that life does go on.

    I was amazed at how many of my Mom’s friends simply didn’t know what to say or do. During the service for my Mom, I spoke in front of the group of people and, through tears, told them it was ok. My mom was ok. She was now with my Dad, which is where she truly wanted to be. After the service, a large number of people approached me and thanked me for saying that death, although sad, is sometimes the best possible outcome. This experience has opened my eyes and my heart towards others that are hurting.

    Brenda, I admire your willingness to help your ex. I especially thank you for bringing this subject to the forefront. It’s never easy to talk about someone dying or death, but in some cases, we need to rise up and do what we can.

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Hi Denise, I felt the same way when my mother died of Dementia… For her it had been six years. Such a cruel disease for all involved, especially when a loved one is suffering or in pain. With Dementia and Alzheimers we’ve already said goodbye to the person we knew and loved, because they disappeared long ago. When someone… like you and me… says we’re glad our loved one died, passed away, or are gone, it’s definitely not the politically correct thing to say. Hopefully with the huge numbers of Baby Boomers whose times are coming, society will become more comfortable talking about death. You did a great thing by speaking about your mom’s death at her funeral. Thank you for sharing your story. Brenda

  5. I was as moved as much by your commenters as I was by your post. Perhaps I am not so afraid of dying as the process. I was with my Mom (I was 12 and an only child) when she died; I was also with two friends days before they died (both from lung cancer, coincidentally) who were in comas. One, I know, heard me – she was in hospice care. The other friend, I really don’t know if she heard me but I remember her husband’s loving care of her the day I visited. And I also remembered, with my Mom, some of the things people said to me. Perhaps they just didn’t know what to say. Sometimes, death is the best outcome. And the lonliest thing for a person who is dying, I think, is not to acknowledge that. I saw that with an aunt when I was barely 21. Your post has made me think, and remember.

    • Alana, You’ve hit upon something so important…. It’s lonely for the person who’s dying. Everyone tippy toes around the subject. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room! The rest of us have other things to think about, lives to lead, jobs, grocery shopping, but the person who’s just been diagnosed with a terrible disease or who’s dying, can think of little else. Granted, some don’t want to talk about it, but it’s been my experience that most of them do, but there are few people who will even acknowledge it. While we’re uncomfortable with the subject of dying, and we may not know what to say… It’s not about us! It’s about easing their mind, listening and engaging in a conversation with them. If they want to talk about it, that’s the kindest thing we can do for them. Thank you, Alana! Brenda

  6. Brenda, I’m really glad you were willing to forgive and help your ex face death. We’ve gotten away from talking about death and anything to do with it in our culture. It is spoken of in hushed voices…”passing away”…we don’t call it what it really is. It’s become so sanitized! At Christmas, my mom and I were looking at old family photos from my grandma’s stash and we found one of a dead relative from the early 1900’s – His body had undoubtedly been lovingly washed and dressed in his “Sunday best,” then placed in the coffin in the front parlour where his loved ones and friends could share their stories about him. Sharing our stories helps us grieve!

    It was really hard for me when my BFF, Gail, died from breast cancer last February. I wanted to talk about it and she didn’t. Every time I’d go to visit and sit with her, she’d retreat a little further into herself, until she refused to speak at all. I can’t help but think that talking about death might have made the process a little less frightening for her. My husband and I have discussed it a lot, and he laughs because I made him establish a “Val’s Funeral” file on his computer: I know I want it at the church, lots of music and I know which songs I want. My 16-yr old niece, Sarah, also talked about it with her Uncle Bill (my husband is a minister), and chose the songs she wanted and asked him to officiate her funeral. It was heartbreaking, but all the more meaningful knowing that she had chosen the details herself.

    I hope when my time comes, I can be so at peace in my God.

    • You’re so right, Val. Sharing our stories helps us grieve, regardless of whether the person is still living or has already died. I think most people think about themselves… they’re not comfortable talking or thinking about someone’s death, when they should be asking themselves how is the person who’s dying feeling? We can ease their grief as well by talking about it, directly, even reminiscing and sharing stories. As it is, so many of us act like the person is already dead. How very sad for all of us, but especially the one who’s time is limited. Perhaps we should role reverse, not just about dying, but a lot of things. How would we feel if we were in the other person’s shoes? I guess that’s another way of saying, “The Golden Rule.” I’m sorry your BFF died and retreated into herself. You didn’t say, but was she s a woman of faith, not that believing in God would take away all of her fears. With all of the school shootings and drug problems, your niece has good reason to think about death and her service. She’s brave and smart to do that. Every Sunday I sit with the same group of friends at church. My girlfriend, Sue, knows every song from the hymn book I want sung at my service, and my girlfriends, Gayle and Lee, know I want a fun party afterward… not a solemn memorial service… I don’t have any living family, just good friends, and I want them to have a wonderful time and turn on my playlist… starting with the Rolling Stones, of course. xoxox, Brenda

  7. What a wonderful story, Brenda. I was with both my mother and my grandmother when they passed away. I was with my Alzheimer’s-ridden dad within a couple hours of his death. All were peaceful and respectful. I lost an aunt yesterday to metastatic breast cancer. It has been six years since I saw her. She came to TX from Chicago for my mother’s memorial service. Yes, we will all face the end of our earthly existence but life does go on, I believe it all my heart. Thank you for your story.

    • Thank you for sharing, Terry. None of us has “attending a friend’s death” on our own bucket list, but I think it would take away some of the fear about dying. The body has a way of gradually shutting down that’s generally peaceful. They’re here one second and the next they’re not. I realize not all deaths are like that, but for the most part, the thought of dying is more painful than the actual death itself. I’m a woman of faith, so I believe life goes on… in a better place. Thank you, Brenda

  8. Beautiful, Brenda! We are ALL going to die, yet everyone acts surprised by this inevitable fact.
    You’re so right, we should live fully and joyfully, hold-on to things lightly, and let go gratefully and gracefully.
    Love you bunches!

  9. I’ve never had cancer myself, but I’ve lost quite a few much-loved friends and family. I’m not afraid of death because I know I will see them again. I’m not in any hurry mind you. Just not afraid.

    • I like the way you phrase that, Rena. “I’m not in any hurry mind you.” That’s cute. I also believe we’ll see them, again, and that world will be a much better place. xoxox, Brenda

  10. Would it be okay for me to mention some lines that I have kept in my memory for many many years? I don’t remember who said it, but I read it and remember and repeat it now and then..

    “I always knew that nobody ever got out of here alive, but I always thought there would be an exception made for me”
    Texan’s love to laugh and joke about everything.. This brings belly laughs to most folks.. It does for me anyway..

    For myself, being from Texas and growing up next to a small cemetery, being at family members funerals there and playing under the shade trees, being familiar with the names on the ancient tombstones and the newer ones, raiding the heap of clippings and cleanup area for “pretties” and placing them on my Papa’s grave… being at funerals held under the lovely old gazebo.. now I’m a mature adult always going to “visit” the graves at the cemeteries each time I’ve been back to Bogata.. and now that it’s hard for me to travel so far I’m missing those visits to my dear loved ones graves.. I am looking forward to being with them again in the not too distant future..

    • Hi Brenda, Love the line! How true! Isn’t it interesting that up until a certain time in our life, we don’t really think of death as applying to us? I’m a Texas girl as well. I’ve moved away a couple of times but always come back. Now I’m living in San Antonio, but I had to look up, Bogata. It’s down the road from Paris! Kind of cool having two such exotic-named towns near one another. One of my favorite things to do is explore small, Texas towns. I go to Austin a lot and always take the back roads so I can drive through a couple of small towns. I love to stop at the diner, drive around the courthouse square and poke my head in the antique stores. If you ever need “grounding,” small Texas towns are the place to spend some time. Genuine, polite, sweet friendly people. There are a number of photos of Bogata online. I would love it. There’s also a photo of the Bogata Cemetery. Thank you for leaving me your note!! Brenda

  11. THANK YOU for writing this…………..I SO GET IT!I assume he did not have a wife in the LIVING ROOM?!!
    I have just been through it and YES, it’s hard to find the words…………especially when your MOTHER is ASKING TO GET UP PLEASE!Those were her last words repeated over and over……….was she asking to GO UP to HEAVEN or GET off the BED???!!!!
    I know in my heart.
    I had to tell her NO she couldn’t as it was not SAFE!

    • Elizabeth, Actually it was my ex’s girlfriend who called and asked me to come be with him the day he died. I don’t know how much time she spent with him, but his sister, brother and lots of friends were there. I’d gotten the impression they hadn’t gotten any further than opening the door to his bedroom… Some didn’t even do that. They were partying… with no thoughts about him, dying in the other room… ALONE until I arrived. My mother had some interesting last words as well. XOXOX, Brenda

  12. Oh, Brenda! Thank you for posting that link! What a precious gift God gave you both! Both posts were beautiful, as was the gift you gave your ex. So sad the others could not share in it. The time I had before my dad died, and when he died, was precious and something I’ll always hold in my heart. You’re so right; we’re to live our best life, and be ready to transition into our even better life in the world to come. Enjoying God and His goodness in both! Thanks for sharing these lovely stories!

    • Thank you, Beckye, for reading them both. The best gift we can give someone who’s dying is ourselves and our time, letting them know they won’t be alone. And as it turns out, it’s a gift to ourselves as well. xoxox, Brenda

  13. Dear Brenda,

    You are a thoughtful, kind, (lovely) lady who seems to conduct her life with grace. And I bet you are a lot of fun too. Someday I hope to have the opportunity to meet you.

    • Hi Kathy, Thank you for the wonderful compliment. That’s very thoughtful of you. I’m working on something that may get me “out and about,” so perhaps I’ll be close enough for you to come. I would love to meet you! Brenda

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