As a baby boomer, I have joined the ranks of many of my brethren and can say I am part of the “sandwich” generation. I have children who are teenagers and I am helping them to leave the nest. I had a parent who needed my help to fly and leave his nest as well. How many of you have similar stories to the one I am about to tell?
On June 19, 2008, I lost my father. I would say that he died, but he wouldn’t let us use that term. He preferred that we say he “transitioned.” My father was an amazing man. He lived life with integrity and purpose. He was eighty-four years old and his mind was as sharp as ever. He had renal failure and had been on dialysis. His body was getting weaker and weaker and he finally decided to stop the dialysis. This allowed him to “transition” on his own terms. Once again his strength and dignity prevailed.
Having now gone through the experience of losing a parent and being there for the transition, it has caused me to look at how we see and experience death in our culture. I realize that each person needs to be allowed (whenever possible) to die on his or her own terms.
My father had expressed his wishes to my family and me well in advance and we were able to discuss them with him and understand what he wanted. He also put these wishes into a legal document known as a living will. In his, he put me in charge. At the time, I didn’t realize how important that was. But, when the time came, I had to act.
I felt like Shirley MacLaine in the movie Terms of Endearment when she was fighting for pain medications for her daughter who was dying. I had to scream for morphine for my father when his lungs started to fill up with fluid. Fortunately, after quite a bit of drama, he was able to get what he needed and I honored the promise that I made to him. His transition was peaceful and I am happy that he got what he wanted. In the wake of all this is a massive amount of grief, which is a natural part of life.
I share this story so that it will allow you to pause and think about whether you have a living will. Have you discussed the issues of death and dying with your loved ones? Although many of us live as if we will never die, that is one of those things that is inevitable for all of us.
Although death is never easy, knowing what my dad wanted and knowing that we were able to provide it both with the living will and details of his funeral that he planned ahead of time, made things better somehow.
Death is a natural part of the cycle of life. It is okay to talk about it and to address it when it is staring you in the face. But, it is also important to say all the wonderful things you want to say and understand the wants and needs of others before an emergency situation develops.
Hug your children, your parents, your brothers, sisters, and your friends. Tell them you love them as often as you can. That is what my father taught me. I am glad I was able to tell him that many times before his grand transition!
By Janet Horn M.D.