WHAT I’VE LEARNED ABOUT LIFE BY WATCHING PEOPLE DIE

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“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

Mark Twain

I was a child the first time I saw a man die. I don’t remember the event as particularly traumatic. The man was a stranger and I watched the tragedy unfold through a window, the glass glaring the line between reality and fantasy and giving the sensation of watching a particularly disturbing television program. While swimming in the basement pool of our apartment block my father, sister and I noticed a group of 3 people sleeping on the private dock outside the building. We saw the beer bottles and noted that all three were in their underwear and figured they were just “sleeping it off”. My father ran outside after one man got up, stumbled to the end of the dock and got into the quickly moving river, but it was too late. He went under the water and never came up again. By this time another man who had been watching from his balcony had joined my father outside and when my dad started towards the water he held him back. The current was too strong to try to go in after him. He was gone. When the search and rescue team finally arrived at the scene a policeman spoke to my sister and I and gave us each a card for a local Victim Services program. I was old enough to know what a ‘victim’ was, but I wasn’t old enough to understand how I could be one in this situation. I looked over at one of the deceased’s two companions, a woman, likely his partner, who seemed to be sobering up quickly. How did she feel? The dead man was a victim.  She was a victim. Did they have children? If so, they were victims. I felt sadness for their loss and for the senselessness of it all.  But as for me, I was fine. I’m not sure what that says about me, if anything. I don’t think about that day often. The dock itself is even gone now, washed away by a flood years ago. Every so often I think about those people and how by some twist of fate I was a part of an event that changed their lives forever. Sometimes I feel like it should mean more to me.

The second time I saw a man die I was in high school. The man was my grandfather. He passed away at an old age, in the hospital, after a struggle with leukemia. I was in the room with the rest of my family when he took his last breath, I heard his labored breathing become silent and stillness overtake him. In the room there was a sense of pain and peace at the same time. His last words to me were I love you. I did love my grandfather and I felt sadness when he died. My grandparents were a very large presence in my life as I was growing up, their home was a second home to me and their other grandchildren. But my grandpa was an old man and no one expected him to live forever. He had lived many great years, had lived to see his children grow up and have families of their own, and had met his grandchildren and seen them become young adults. He was relatively lucky in that his illness came on quickly and did not bring him very much pain until the very end. It was hard to watch my grandmother’s pain, to see the man she loved and her life’s companion. I mourned for her more than for myself. Through hearing stories from his friends and family members, reading his obituary and hearing his eulogy it was clear my grandfather had a full life that was to be celebrated and not grieved. In terms of sentences dealt by the universe his death felt fair and the sadness I felt as a result was endurable.

This is not always the case. I will never forget the Easter Sunday that I got the phone call from a friend to tell me the news: “Jay’s dead.” I had been walking to my car on the way to a family dinner and I felt my knees buckle underneath me. Dead. Gone. This was a man who I had loved, who I had lived with for almost 2 years. A person who I watched transform from a man happy, loving and full of life to someone who was jealous, suspicious, paranoid and scary. I watched helpless as his mind, personality and body were ruined by drugs and was helpless to stop it. The news left me empty. I wasn’t shocked; he was gone a long time ago. I felt angry. I hated him for what he did to himself and what he did to me. I felt guilty. He asked me for help so many times and nothing I did could save him. I had to leave. He literally drove me to it, in his car at 200 km an hour, threatening to kill me. We brought out the worst in each other. A part of me felt relieved. Relieved for him. He wasn’t in any more pain. Relieved for me. The darkest side of me was dead and buried with him. But mostly, I felt so sad. I felt sad for myself, for his family, for the world. For every person who once knew him and would never see him as he used to be. And for everyone who would never get to meet him.

Some say that when someone close to you dies it makes you examine your own mortality. I’m sure this is true for most people. Myself, I think about my mortality all the time. This is because I suffer from an anxiety disorder and I’m a hypochondriac, a double whammy. The first major health scare I had was a few years back when I thought I had a lump in my breast. When I went to my doctor, it turned out it was just a rib. Oops. Then I started having heart palpitations. Apparently these are a symptom of anxiety but I was convinced that I had a deadly heart condition. After wearing a heart monitor for 24 hours, a referral to a cardiologist, several ECG’s and an echocardiogram I am finally convinced (mostly) that in fact I am just crazy. If I have heartburn I think I am having a GI bleed. If my arm is numb it’s not because I was lying on it for an hour, it’s because I’m having a stroke. A headache means I’m bleeding into my brain. A neck ache means uncontrolled high blood pressure. The fact that I am in the medical profession does nothing to abate my fear, it just means that I know of more rare diseases that I could potentially have. My fear of dying also extends to activities. I have a crippling fear of highway driving. Deer crossing signs cause me the most distress as I become convinced of an impending antler coming through the windshield and spearing me through the heart, which would likely be the most painful way to die on the road. But my visions of head-on-collisions with semi trucks are also frightening. I also have a recurring image of the floor of the car coming off followed by me falling out of the bottom and being run over by my own back tires. Yes, I’m serious. When I say this out loud I can laugh at myself, but it’s through tears.

Working at a hospital I see tragedy every day. Whether it is a person learning of a devastating diagnosis, suffering from disease or ultimately succumbing to their condition, many of the people I deal with are dying in some way or another. It would be a heartbreaking job if it weren’t for rare moments of inspiration. A few days ago I had one such moment. Tasked with educating an 85 year-old man newly diagnosed with a serious heart condition on his new medications I went into his room to find him crying. Admittedly, my first instinct was to leave, but he had already seen me and was gesturing for me to come over. As I introduced myself he wiped away his tears and told me: “Please help me, I don’t want to die. I love my life!” For the next 45 minutes he proceeded to tell me why he loved life, namely his entire life’s story. Now generally I would stop someone after about 2 minutes of this, but something in the animation and urgency in his voice gave me pause and I actually started to listen. And then I was hooked. The man had the most amazing life. Born in Italy, studied in Germany, worked all over the world, professional hockey player son, divorced three times, owned a vineyard, the list went on and on. We bonded as we spoke German together, discussed restaurants in New York, talked about our favorite wine, and he gave me advice about my marriage. He had all of his faculties, up until this point he felt physically well and had close friends and family who visited him frequently. He enjoyed good food and good wine and entertained often. He said: “I’m 85 years old, and I love life. I’m not scared to die, but I enjoy my life, and I have a good life. When my life is no longer good, then I will be ready to die.”

The unfortunate thing for this 85 year-old man is that to prolong his life he will likely have to give up some of the things he enjoys so much. A healthy heart diet is pretty low on red meat and foie gras (although he can probably still have some red wine in moderation). He will have to make some hard choices. Will he be willing to give up some of the things that make his life so enjoyable in order to live a longer life that may not be as worth living?

I tried to put myself in his shoes, what would I do? It was then that the parallels of our situations hit me. Was I allowing my fears and anxieties prevent me from fully enjoying my life? A little bit of healthy fear of death is a good thing. It shows you cherish life. Act too recklessly and you prove nothing but a blatant disregard for your own mortality. However it’s important that you don’t let your worries about life’s inherent dangers prevent you from enjoying your days on this earth. I can’t know whether I will lead a long and full life like my grandfather or whether it will be cut short like that man on the dock or my former love but I do know that I want to live my life like I have something to lose.

99 thoughts on “WHAT I’VE LEARNED ABOUT LIFE BY WATCHING PEOPLE DIE

  1. Does your fear make you more empathetic at work? It seems like it could. If nothing else, some fear can reduce the chance of you playing pass-the-infection at work.

    Fwiw, I went to ER for a small tumor the size of a large mosquito bite. It was just fat. I was diagnosed with fat.

    • Haha! Well that is definitely better than a tumor.
      I try to be empathetic, but most of the time I am just relieved that the people around me are clearly much sicker than I am. This is followed by self-disgust at the realization that I am a horrible person.
      It’s a vicious cycle.

    • I can completely relate to this post, as I suffered terribly with what began as a medical anxiety that was triggered by the death of my stepdad very soon followed by the near death of my sister to whom I am extremely close. It was one of the darkest and powerless times of my life. I was put on anti-anxiety medicine for a short time but ultimately ended up breaking out of it without medication. My beginning of freedom was when I took a stand that it had the ground that it had taken, but I resisted giving it anymore. I combatted my fear of driving by dealing it a point to at least drive around the block and back. I was determined that I would not relinquish another area of my life to this condition. Once I was stabilized in that step, I then began working on taking back an area at a time until I had returned to a place of true peace and joy. I can now coach myself through it whenever I feel it trying to rear it’s head. I believe that when it is my time to go, I will have a knowing in my heart, I will be able to accept it and that until then I cannot allow anything to rob time I do have left of purpose to live. I feel that perhaps your first experience with death may have affected you more than you have realized,

  2. Another article about difficult issues well and thoughtfully written.

    A horrible person? I hardly think so. Your are bravely facing down your demons and not letting them take control of you. I know some of what you feel and are going through, as I’m also facing down horrors brought on by PTSD (Puss Traumatic Disorder – I had terrible acne when I was younger). One of the things I use to help me deal is humour. I congratulate you on your success.

    ps “Please Deactivate my Facebook.” Priceless!!!

  3. Reblogged this on Cristian Mihai and commented:
    Some say I’m overly obsessed with death. Well, not exactly. But it’s also something we’re never fully aware of, and it’s one of those things we don’t really expect to happen to us. Like all the terrible things we see on the news every day, or read about in newspapers. Maybe it’s just a reflex, our assumption that death is but a vague concept. Some day, somewhere, in a way we can’t possibly predict.

    • Cristian, have you read Janet Frame’s “My Daughter Buffalo”? It’s a novel about a scholar of death. Here’s a blog post I wrote about it a while back: http://outsideofacat.wordpress.com/2010/10/22/the-last-taboo-daughter-buffalo/ (another book you might find interesting — this time non-fiction — is “Stiff” by Mary Roach: http://outsideofacat.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/the-curious-life-of-the-dead-stiff/ )

      Interesting and thoughtful post, thanks for sharing it.

      I’ve found that death is the instant conversation killer. Mention death and you are guaranteed something along the lines of “but at least he had a good life” or “I remember when I lost [insert person / pet here] and…” and neither of those help much. Also the usual “If there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know.” Most people won’t let you know. Don’t wait for them to let you know — just do something kind. Don’t try to fill the hole — you can’t. But you can do many other things.

      In some cultures people wail and howl and cry loudly for some time until the worst of the grief has passed. I think they are on to something. I’ve never seen a body — I could have but chose not to. In Germany, embalming is not as common a practise as it is in the US, nor is the use of make-up, except in extreme cases. In fact, the idea of embalming strikes me as very strange, unsettling, and scary — I hope this never happens to me. Not just because of environmental concerns (look it up, it’s formaldehyde etc) but because of the entire idea of replacing blood with chemicals. I guess to me, a body has some kind of dignity, if not sanctity, what should be respected.

    • Cristian, as someone who is 2 years in remission the idea of death is always around the corner. But the fact that you work at a hospital and see death constantly makes you doubly aware of how people die. I am sure you have seen people be brave and a few who really are cranky. Death is definitely also all around us in this media crazed age where we can read and see, as you say, terrible things everyday. I know that when I found out about my Cancer I actually read a book “As I Lay Dying” written by a priest who accepted death, he didn’t allow the idea to be the center of his life…and that is the key word there “Life.” He lived and enjoyed who he was, his friends, his prayers, his beliefs. You say this above quite eloquently. Both my grandfathers lived till their 90’s and both enjoyed life to their fullest. Death for you seems to be part of your “life,” and therefore in some ways by acknowledging the elements surrounding death, you also put it to rest. Thanks for sharing this, I really understood where you were coming from.

      • I can’t even begin to imagine living through a life threatening illness. Congratulations to you on your remission. I wish you many years of health of happiness. You must have a very unique perspective on death and dying. I’m glad you could take something from mine. Thank you for reading.

    • Thank you so much for reblogging my post. The response has been overwhelming and very positive. The most surprising and blessed surprise has been all of the comments from your readers who have shared their own stories and insights with me. You truly have a wonderful community of readers out there!
      Again, I can’t express in words how appreciative I am.

      • good luck! The nice thing about the realization you are in bonus time is there is nothing to stop you from doing what you know needs to be done.

  4. I am just turning 65 and I have been given a second shot at living. The body is wearing down, my spirit is starting to soar. Look out world here I come. Great post God bless you

    • My spouse and i have been now escattic Edward could complete his researching through your precious recommendations he got from your very own weblog. It’s not at all simplistic to simply be giving freely secrets the others might have been trying to sell. And we all know we have the blog owner to thank for that. All of the explanations you made, the simple web site menu, the relationships you can give support to promote it’s mostly astounding, and it’s really letting our son in addition to our family consider that that theme is enjoyable, and that’s very vital. Thank you for the whole lot!

  5. Wow. It’s funny because I was just thinking to myself (before reading the allotted post) how timid I can be.
    Thanks for the reminder to stare life and say “Hey, lets ride for a bit” ( safely of course!)

    • It’s funny because people probably don’t realize how timid I really am because I am quite extroverted in my personality and I am a little bit flamboyant, but I constantly overanalyze everything and feel like I am always on edge. I’m trying to loosen up My sister’s husband speaks Spanish as his first language and one of the first English terms he learned was ‘RELAX!’ so whenever I feel like I’m being too uptight I hear his voice in my head (with his Argentinian accent) telling me just that!

  6. A beautiful and painful story all at once. You are a very strong person for sharing this. I can’t offer any advice, I can’t tell you I know how you feel, but I have to tell you that I am truly thinking of you. I hope that you find the strength to live your life passionately and without fear. And whenever you are afraid, I hope there is someone there to help you stand up and face it. My thoughts are with you, and good luck in your journey.

  7. Candidly touching post! Reminded me of my own periods of anxiety ridden hypochondria and hearing the news if a former love lost so young. I love that you sat with rapt attention in acknowledgement of the patient who loves life – a real blessing to you both!

    • Thank you. I am sorry to hear about your loss. It is hard to lose anyone that you cared about, regardless of whether or not they are still in your life. I hope you have found a way to deal with your anxiety/hypochondria. I find alcohol helps. (Not when driving).

  8. Beautifully written and very moving. I was teary reading about your grandfather.
    I physically flinched while reading about the deer antler.
    Thank you for this honest and evocative piece.

  9. My father is 89 and is going through the last stages of his life. He’s looking forward to earning his angel wings and I will miss him after he decides to pass. In the meantime, he’s enjoying visits from just about everyone who knows him. He’s like a guy waiting for the right bus. He’s comfortable and safe. Death happens in so many ways and we can’t choose how we leave, but I think the way my dad is doing it beats and unexpected drowning or a drug overdose any day.

  10. I learned how to die from my friend Keith. He was given two years to finish his story. He got his paperwork in order, traveled, bought a new house to leave for his lovely wife, rode horses with his friends whenever possible, encouraged EVERYONE around him who was grief stricken at his esophogial cancer diagnosis………………….and then slipped away in peace……knowing that this was not the end, and that we would all be with him again someday. My view of death with forever be changed by this man of faith and wisdom.

    • He sounds like a wonderful man and you are lucky to have known him. People deal with death in different ways and it is impossible to know how you would respond if you had the foresight to know you were going to die. I would like to think that I would behave exactly the way that your friend did, he sounds like he could be and example for everyone.

  11. Have you ever given consideration to getting medication for your anxiety? I have a son who barely functions without it, but he’s quite normal and cheerful with–generic related to Lexapro.

  12. Pingback: The Idea of Death | howanxious

  13. I work in medical records. Even though I almost never get to look death in the face I am constantly reminded of it as I work. The hardest for me are the babies. I had a high risk pregnancy and it is a miracle that both of my babies survived. So, when I get the footprints of tiny feet that belong to babies who didn’t make it my heart breaks.
    Like you, I also have anxiety disorder. Since I am a relatively new mom this is not just over my own well being but my children as well. I am fat. I am not yet diabetic, am currently losing weight, and have normal blood pressure readings. But I am always sure I am about to keel over with a heart attack (anxiety attacks with heart palpitations will do that) or some other obesity related disorder. I also live in constant fear that something will happen to my children. I am sure one will sneak a piece of food into their room and choke. Or a teddy bear will lose and eye and that eye will be choked on. Or my child will fall off her bed and break her neck.
    I am so glad that I am not the only one who feels these things.
    I try to live life to the fullest and I am doing pretty well. But it is so nice to know that there are others out there who have these same emotions and fears.

    • I completely hear you about the heart palpitations!! I don’t have children yet but I’m sure I will be the most neurotic mother! You are definitely not alone. I laughed a little when I read what you wrote, not at all maliciously, but because I was just talking to one of my best friend who just had a baby and was telling me about how she was finding herself projecting all of her anxieties onto her new son (and believe me she would put yours to shame). It makes me happy that my blog can make at least one person realize others feel the same way they do.
      P.S. congratulations on the weight loss!

  14. I feel you want to discuss death so here is my question – why do you feel bad and sad for other people? You even feel sad for yourself. Why can’t we just feel sorrow? Why does it have to be qualified, quantified,or attached to a life experience? Why can’t we just feel grief? Why isn’t that enough? Why can’t we just weep? Mourn? A human being who was alive and vital is gone and nothing will fill that space ever. Everyone grieves differently, I know but I sometimes feel in this culture we keep death and grief at arms length, and this is an essential part of living – dealing with grief.

    • A very good question. I’m not sure. I guess I’ll have to think about it. Perhaps a good topic for another blog post. I definitely feel my share of sorrow. I think I just have a need to think about things, talk them out, put them into words.I’m an overanalyzer. But you are right. Sometimes feelings are just feelings and there are no words for them. There are times when I just cry and I don’t even know what I’m crying about. Feelings like that make me scared but they really shouldn’t be because they are real human emotion.

  15. Pingback: WHAT I’VE LEARNED ABOUT LIFE BY WATCHING PEOPLE DIE | Inspirational hub

  16. I feel you. All of it. Some say that my fears are totally irrational. What bothers me is that the things that I fear are possible. Not likely, but possible. It’s almost crippling sometimes.

    • Exactly. Sometimes it’s infuriating when someone tells me “You’re not dying…” because yes, I recognize that it is very likely the case that I am not dying, but unless you are a physician doing a physical examination, you cannot tell me with 100% certainty that I am not having a heart attack right now. I mean, I want to not be dying, but sometimes I also want people to stop looking at me like I’m crazy and take me seriously. It’s a no-win situation. It sucks being crazy sometimes.

  17. Anxiety is such a curse. It runs in my family and I don’t think anyone who doesn’t suffer from it really understands. This was a very insightful post; I enjoyed reading.

    • Thanks! You’re right! It’s easy to be sympathetic to those who have anxiety, especially if you see someone having a panic attack, but it’s very hard to explain the condition to other people and have them understand. “You see, I rationally I know I am perfectly healthy, but nonetheless I am convinced I am going to drop dead at any momemnt.” It just doesn’t register with ‘normal’, well-adjusted people. Thanks for reading, your comment means a lot.

  18. Really interesting post, and I can relate. I watched my uncle slowly waste away from cancer. I wasn’t in the room when he died, but I saw him a week earlier – he was practically a skeleton and could barely speak, so different from the man I knew in life as my uncle. He was pretty young, too – just in his fifties.

    I do think too many people in the US are terrified of death to the point that they do everything they can to put it off. It’s good to live a healthy, long life, but you also have to face the fact that you’re mortal and find a way to accept that, whatever that way happens to be. Even if you’re active every day and eat a healthy diet, a brick can fall on your head one day and kill you. You’re definitely right about the excessive fear of death – it makes life a lot safer and a lot less interesting.

    • Thank you for the compliment. My stepmom’s brother just died this week (her and my dad have been together over 20 years so I guess you could call him my uncle) just died this week, and he was also in his early 50’s. It really makes you think about living life to the fullest. I know that sounds really cliche, but it’s also true. You have to find a balance in life between living life and taking risks and not being reckless. I know I’ll never be accused of being reckless, but I would like to take a few more risks! Thanks for reading!

  19. This is an thought-provoking. Recently, several people close to me have been diagnosed with advanced stages of cancer in addition to several neighbors with cancer diagnoses. Their scary and life-changing news convinces me to that the time in now to pursue my dreams.

    • I agree! A relative of mine just died of lung cancer this week, he was quite young. It’s a scary thing and it makes you think about life and how you are living (or not living).You should definitely do whatever you can to accomplish everything you want to do in this life.

  20. Seeing death stays with you. Ask old soldiers (if they seem ready for the question).

    Your opening photo struck me. A former work colleague died in his fifties some months ago. I actually found him a very difficult work partner and a difficult person to like, but characteristically, he had no idea of how he sometimes gave offence and after we both left that employment (made redundant in a reorganisation) he sought Facebook friendship. Diplomatically, I agreed. Soon after he died suddenly. Deleting his facebook account was the last thing on his family’s minds and I find it weird and slightly unsettling that I still get messages suggesting I endorse him for something.

  21. “Act too recklessly and you prove nothing but a blatant disregard for your own mortality. However it’s important that you don’t let your worries about life’s inherent dangers prevent you from enjoying your days on this earth.” Words to live by. This is lovely. Thank you for sharing a piece of you that is so emotional.

  22. I really enjoyed reading this and it really hit home because I too, suffer from an anxiety disorder and frequently feel like I’m dying even if I’ve just got a cold. I’m constantly battling between my crippling fear of doing normal, everyday things and the thought that I’m wasting my life. I’m petrified of the thought of death and my biggest fear is waking up one day and I’m 60 years old and realised I’ve wasted the majority of my life worrying unnecessarily. Thank you for writing something so thought-provoking and I’m hoping along with hard-work and counselling it’s things like this that will bring me back.

    • Thanks for reading!
      I understand how you feel, believe me. I know that it sounds so cliche, but you really will be ok. I think that because you are aware of the irrationality of your feelings. It took me a long time to even realize that.

  23. Congratulations for what you wrote. I am one of those people who also think about dead constantly. I’m not afraid of it, I just hope I have enough time to make some dreams come true. I think that being aware of death also makes us aware of life and helps us to appreciate what we have. Thanks for sharing your experiences and feelings.

  24. My earliest experience with death was with animals. We kids seemed to think it was awesome to find a dead animal. I was around 12 when my grandfather passed away. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance at his funeral because he had served in the military. My grandmother passed away when I was 14. I got to see her in the nursing home a short while before she died. She was lying in a dim corner in one of those over-large cribs. Her cover was on the floor and she was curled up in a fetal position, trying to keep warm. i promised myself that I would never treat my patients like that.
    I never found death upsetting, It was simply a natural process of life.

    • I used to always find dead birds and think it was really amazing too. Sometimes our cats would bring them home. But I always thought of them differently than dead people for some reason, almost like they weren’t real. Probably because so many of my friends had dead birds and animals stuffed in their houses. Dead people always seemed scary.
      Thanks for reading and for sharing.

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