Dying & Death Talk

Looking at dying and death for what it is: a part of life.


Caring for a parent

A Handbook for Grieving

Courtesy of | By Caroline M. Grant | Image by Yvetta Fedorova | Originally Published 10.12.2018 | Posted 11.20.2018

Go funeral dress shopping. When the saleswoman asks about the event, say: “Dressier than office, but not as fun as cocktail.”.

Before: Text your friends to tell them that your mother has entered hospice. Tell them that it’s just to get the equipment she needs (a hospital bed, a better wheelchair) and not a sign of her impending death. Pretend you believe it.

Brace yourself for the SWAT team of hospice services and providers that descends on you: the social worker, the nurse, the chaplain, the volunteer bearing a soft blanket, a stuffed bear and lavender-scented hand lotion. Give the bear away.

Answer every phone call from “Unknown Number” because usually it is some kindly person from hospice. Apologize to the Unknown Number who is not hospice when you tell her no, you can’t subscribe to the symphony because your mother is dying. Start to tell her that your mother used to subscribe to the symphony and you would like to someday, when she is … Trail off, hang up and feel guilty about the little bomb you dropped into her day.

A month before your mother’s death, read the draft of her obituary that your father has written, and start to offer edits like it’s any other piece of writing. Don’t cry until you come to the names of your children and nieces. Continue reading “A Handbook for Grieving”

When the Hospice Care System Fails

Courtesy of | By Daniela J. Lamas, M.D. | Photo by Ryan McVay | Originally Published 10.17.2018 | Posted 11.17.2018

Let me start with an apology.

When I saw that your 90-year-old father was in our emergency department, after being resuscitated while on home hospice, I assumed that I understood what had happened. As a critical care doctor, I have cared for patients whose families have changed their minds at the last minute, grasping on to impossible hopes rather than face the reality of death.

On the phone with the E.D. physician, I sighed. “Family?” I asked.

“Must have reversed the D.N.R.” — the do-not-resuscitate order that is standard for a patient on hospice care. “They’re on the way,” she said.

I told her I’d head down. I was fairly sure that nothing was going to change. But before we took this patient to the intensive care unit, tethered to machines he had never wanted, I wanted to begin to talk with you.

There your father was. He was so pale. A ventilator breathed for him. His body, wasted by cancer, flopped like a rag doll. I touched his fingers and they were cool, vessels clamped down by the medicines keeping his blood pressure from plummeting. I imagined caring for him in the I.C.U., trying not to hurt him even more. Continue reading “When the Hospice Care System Fails”

A Dress Rehearsal for the End of Life

Courtesy of | By Monona Yin | Photo by Loris Guzzetta | Orignally Published 10.23.2018 | Posted 11.11.2018

We had started down the path of honoring our mother’s wish to have a good death until a hospice nurse figured out that she wasn’t really dying.

Three years ago, my family and I had the experience of going through a full “dress rehearsal” for my mother’s demise. At 83, she had become alarmingly weak from stage IV lymphoma and atrial fibrillation, and asked me and my brother to come home to Delaware for her next oncologist visit.

Mom had already undergone chemotherapy and cardioversion, so we knew there were few treatment options left. Still, we were utterly unprepared when the doctor said, “She probably has less than six months,” and recommended that she begin hospice care.

Widowed at just 37 with two small children, Mom has trained herself to face challenges without flinching. She is that rare Chinese elder who isn’t superstitious about mentioning or planning for her own death.

True to form, when we got home from the oncologist’s office, Mom sat us both down at the kitchen table to discuss her end-of-life wishes. She had witnessed two horrible lingering deaths up close — her mother’s and a longtime friend’s. What she feared most was pointless suffering and the loss of control over her own life. She wanted us to understand that, if she had little hope of recovery, she’d rather go quickly than fall apart slowly and painfully.

Continue reading “A Dress Rehearsal for the End of Life”

A wise guide helped us with the living before and after my father’s death

Courtesy of | By Priscilla Ennals | Photo by Robert Daly/Getty Images | Originally Published 07.21.2018 | Posted 08.28.2018

The process of dying is so removed, sterile, and disconnected from living that it is hard to know what to do when confronted with a terminal diagnosis. Discussions with the medical experts commonly offer little guidance in questions that loom large, and for loved ones, equally, there is little direction. Death doulas – wise guides to dying – may offer a way through for those who are lost.

My father recently died from MND. I sat with him 21 months before his death in the office of the neurologist as the diagnosis was revealed. The specialist was kind and sorry, but it was a blunt talk. People live typically less than two years. Dad had little idea of the reality of what was to follow but had heard of Neale Daniher and his fight against the “beast”. The terminal nature of this disease didn’t really land for him. He had seen off a brain tumour, bowel cancer (twice), a stroke. He had things to do, people to help. He reflected on how lucky he had been in his life and still felt luck was on his side.

After crying together and alone, I then wondered what to do. Google and a scan of the medical literature was informative. The news wasn’t great. How do you keep living while death and loss show themselves on a daily basis? Can’t do up buttons, hold a cup, drive, swallow without choking. How do you deal with the practical, existential, relational, emotional and spiritual?

Continue reading “A wise guide helped us with the living before and after my father’s death”

My Father’s Everyday Heirlooms

Courtesy of | By Isobella Jade | Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times | Originally Published 06.21.2018 | Posted 07.14.2018

His house was destroyed in a fire, and all I have left are the ordinary items that were in his car. Memories are held within their scuffs and stains.

When my dad died at age 63 in a propane explosion that destroyed his home, there was nothing to claim besides what was in his car.

That was seven years ago, and in my long grieving process, the few everyday items I retrieved — stained, weathered, smelling of smoke, rusted and patched together — have become deeply meaningful. Memories are held within their scuffs and stains.

After years of bouncing around from apartment to apartment and a halfway house, my father had finally seemed settled out in the country near Syracuse, N.Y.

I thought I could worry about him less, until the morning of Feb. 26, 2011, when I heard about the explosion. I initially wanted to rush to the scene but ended up waiting a few days for the autopsy and cremation. I arranged a visit when I could pick up his urn at a local funeral home and take it back to Manhattan, where I lived.

On that visit, I started down my dad’s snowy driveway but stopped when I saw the charred shell of the former pole-barn that was his home. Chunks of debris and cinders covered the front. The rib cage of the barn was the only part intact. There was a rectangular shape that was once the front doorway, an opening where the kitchen window used to be, the grid of wood planks that made up the bathroom closet, and a big opening where my dad’s bedroom was. There was a huge gash on the roof as if the hand of God went in and ripped out the barn’s heart.

When Isobella Jade’s father died in a fire that destroyed his home, his favorite baseball cap and a few other items that happened to be in his car were all she had left.

His car, a pre-owned white Hyundai Elantra, was unlocked and I slipped into the passenger seat for shelter from the cold. I pushed a few coffee cups and newspapers aside and just sat for a minute, among all that was left of my father’s world. I breathed in the smell of Newport cigarettes and old attic that used to cling to him. This car was his portable office. I’d never been in it before.

I scavenged through scraps of paper, half-broken pens, a stack of coffee-stained fliers, folders and envelopes, and many other random bits that looked as if they belonged in the trash. These were the only artifacts of my dad’s life. Anything with his handwriting on it caught my eye, and was put in the pile of remembrance.

In one of the cup holders I saw his thermos.

I imagined him drinking from it, using it every day, his breath on it. The coffee was completely frozen inside. Still I smelled the strong scent of dark coffee when I sniffed the rim. After rehab for his alcoholism there was a lot of coffee. Whenever I saw him he would be holding his thermos or a paper coffee cup, from a recent stop at a gas station for a refill. Greeting me, his breath against my cheek always smelled of stale warm coffee and cigarettes. He’d talk fast, peppy from the caffeine. After our chat at the train station in Syracuse, he would kiss my cheek goodbye, and the aroma of stale coffee breath would stay with me as my train lurched toward New York City.

Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

In the other cup holder I found a pocketknife, a couple of keys and nail clippers, all held together by a key ring. He gave me a pocketknife like this one when I was 12. My parents had already been separated for a few years.

Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

I found his old stained Giants hat in the back seat under a food pantry box full of cans of tuna, peas and corn, peanut butter and jelly, apple sauce and a bag of frozen oranges. The smashed hat was damp and smelled of last summer’s sweat and had probably been buried in here since then. My fingers touched the brim where he tried to hand-stitch the frayed edge back together. I could picture him with his jack-o’-lantern smile, wearing this hat to my last high school track meets, carrying a small bag of fruit for me. He wore it sometimes when we met at the train station too, when I was visiting from college. He wore it on the day he met my boyfriend — later to be my husband — and we all went to Onondaga Lake.

Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

His sports jacket was hanging neatly on a coat hanger over the back door — he was ever the ready salesman. I smiled at his enthusiasm for knocking on doors, handing out fliers, and making calls from gas stations and coffee shops to get a lead for the home improvement contractors he worked with. He liked to dress for the part. He knew the clean, straight lines of the collar and brass buttons on the sports jacket were part of the pitch.

When I pressed my face into the jacket, the well-worn fabric felt slightly scratchy and I got a whiff of cigarettes. Even if it had a few stains on it and was paired with sneakers, it kept him looking sharp. When I went through the outer pockets of the jacket I pulled out some used tissues and eight sugar packets and a pen with his name on it. I put it all back into the pockets for safekeeping.

I received Dad’s rings at the funeral home when I went to pick up his urn. I gave one to my sister and kept this one. I took it to Greenwich St. Jewelers in downtown Manhattan but asked them not to clean the ring too much. I wanted to keep it partially raw to honor the reality that he had it on when he passed away. The original mazelike ring he loved had been stolen during a rough patch, some years back. I had seen a ring similar to the original at a silver jewelry street stand in SoHo so I bought it and gave it to him the next time I visited. He had worn a mazelike ring all of my childhood. The fact that this mazelike engraved ring was there on his finger was all the evidence I needed to know it was him.

Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

I was surprised to find an orange pocket-size New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs. I opened it and found his name inside. Growing up, the name Jesus was something I heard when the car stalled or when my dad’s leg had to be wrapped in a big white brace because of gout pains. Recently, though, he had begun to go to church and had mentioned that he enjoyed socializing during the coffee hour after the service. He had even asked the pastor how he could be of help in the food pantry or in any other way. I’m sure he liked the free coffee and the opportunity to talk about the bigger picture, the purpose of all things.
In their creases and crevices, these items carried my dad’s scent, his wit, his long stories with a million tangents, his arching eyebrow, the way he looked obstacles in the eye, the tough times he’d been through and how he had just missed the gateway for a quiet, calmer life.
Isobella Jade is working on a memoir.

My mother told me it would take 5 years to ‘get over’ her death. Here’s where I’m at a decade later.

Courtesy of | By Sarah Dunton | Originally Published 04.12.2018 | Posted 05.02.2018

PERSPECTIVE | Suggestions for living without your mother

The cruel irony of losing your mother is that right after her death is when you will need her the most. My mother died a decade ago, when she was 57 and I was 21. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 9, but, for the most part, she made a full recovery.

But after 11 years in remission, she started feeling sick and was soon diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. For a year and a half, she endured painful surgery and chemotherapy. It was during one of those grueling treatment sessions that she indirectly told me it would take five years to “get over” her death. It’s still difficult to remember my mother as she was then – in excruciating pain but fighting through like a champion. But remembering the wisdom she shared with me about the passage of time, gleaned from losing her own mother, has become a touchstone for me throughout this past decade.

My mother was the consummate sage – a certified life coach, in fact. She offered boundless wisdom to anyone who needed it, always prefacing her pearls with, “May I make a suggestion?” In the years since my mother died, many grieving women have approached me when they’re mired in pain and confusion. Sometimes they want advice or guidance. Other times, they just want to talk to someone who has lived through a similar experience.

Here’s what I tell them: Losing your mother is like training for a grief marathon you never signed up for. You’re best served if you start out slow and steady. With time, you will strengthen and condition your heart and mind to feel unpleasant and unwelcome emotions. Once you’re “through it,” you’ll be able to fit the the most unwieldy, foreign feelings into your brain.


Photo by Sarah Dunton


Life without your mother will never be what it was, but I promise it gets easier.

My Father, Body and Soul

Courtesy of | By Josh Max | Illustration by Carson Ellis | Originally Published 06.14.2014 | Posted 04.11.2018

IT’S been eight years since I last saw my father, lying in his reclining chair in his living room, as perfectly still as the half-filled coffee cups on the side table.

I was driving about 40 miles from Dad’s place when I got a call from one of my brothers, who told me to pull over, then delivered the news: Dad was gone. The super of his apartment complex had noticed mail piling up on the front steps, looked through the window, saw what he saw, then called the cops and my brother.

My brother told me to go there right away. I pulled myself together and numbly drove to Dad’s apartment, where a lone, hard detective stood in a full suit and tie in the blistering July heat. “You might not want to go in,” the detective said. “He’s been there awhile.” My dad would have liked this guy.

“I don’t care,” I said. “He’s my father.” I went in and I instantly knew why the cop had suggested otherwise. He’d been lying there three days with no air-conditioning. I couldn’t look directly at the figure in the chair. Instead, I looked at his swollen feet. When a bluebottle fly landed on his big toe, I turned away and wandered around the rest of the apartment.

Dad’s sudden death at 81 — not long after he’d announced he’d live another 10 years — was a devastating surprise. His mother had lived to 93, so his prediction wasn’t such a stretch. It was just impossible to think that a guy who’d made it through 36 missions over Europe as a bombardier in the Air Corps by the time he was 20 could be here one day, gone the next, without some kind of fierce fight.


Continue reading “My Father, Body and Soul”

10 Things That Changed Me After the Death of a Parent

Courtesy of the Huffington Post | By Lisa Schmidt | Originally Published 08.04.2015 | Posted 04.04.2018

I don’t think there is anything that can prepare you to lose a parent. It is a larger blow in adulthood I believe, because you are at the point where you are actually friends with your mother or father. Their wisdom has finally sunk in and you know that all of the shit you rolled your eyes at as a teenager really was done out of love and probably saved your life a time or two.

I lost both of mine two years apart; my mother much unexpected and my father rather quickly after a cancer diagnosis. My mom was the one person who could see into my soul and could call me out in the most effective way. She taught me what humanity, empathy and generosity means. My father was the sarcastic realist in the house and one of the most forgiving people I have ever met. If you wanted it straight, with zero bullshit; just go ask my dad.

Grief runs its course and it comes in stages, but I was not prepared for it to never fully go away. Continue reading “10 Things That Changed Me After the Death of a Parent”

I Know You Love Me — Now Let Me Die

Courtesy of | By Louis M. Profeta, MD | Photo Credit: Adobe Stock | Originally Published 03.15.2017 | Posted 03.24.2018

(This piece appeared previously on Dr. Louis Profeta’s LinkedIn page.)

In the old days, she would be propped up on a comfy pillow, in fresh cleaned sheets under the corner window where she would, in days gone past, watch her children play. Soup would boil on the stove just in case she felt like a sip or two. Perhaps the radio softly played Al Jolson or Glenn Miller, flowers sat on the nightstand, and family quietly came and went.

These were her last days. Spent with familiar sounds, in a familiar room, with familiar smells that gave her a final chance to summon memories that will help carry her away.

She might have offered a hint of a smile or a soft squeeze of the hand but it was all right if she didn’t. She lost her own words to tell us that it’s OK to just let her die, but she trusted us to be her voice and we took that trust to heart.

A day does not go by where my partners don’t look at each other and say, “How do we stop this madness?”

You see, that’s how she used to die. We saw our elderly different then. Continue reading “I Know You Love Me — Now Let Me Die”

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