Death challenges serenity. The closest a loved one’s death can come to some form of calm and peace is if everything is said–especially by those who will go on living. Communication is of great necessity, whatever that might entail: saying we are sorry for something, or professing love, or professing that those left behind will be cared for. If there is a chance to say it–please say it.
How I Began to Write These Letters
Once, when a busy wife and mother of three young children, my older cousin, George, was dying. I had babysat his children and we’d formed a bond. Now he was dying in his fifties. I felt the pain of his imminent death, and yet I didn’t know what I could possibly do to ease his suffering. So I sat down and wrote him a letter–a long letter. I touched on the things we shared, the laughs we had. I praised his life as a friend, father to his children and incredible spouse to his wife. He died a few days after receiving my letter. I always hoped it gave him some comfort. Ironically, I know it comforted me.
Going For Forgiveness
We had no problems between us, but I began to see that even a letter might provide healing in families and relationships where grudges or anger had blocked communication. During the time my mother was dying, I learned of several families who could not sign a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) for their parent, because one sibling was saying no. When I gently asked some questions, I learned that sibling often had a quarrel, a guilt with the parent that had not been resolved. They preferred to keep the parent alive, unable to face the task of finding serenity and healing.
In the discussion, Forgiving Your Parents, the point is made that hurts shared by a parent and a child are the hardest to forgive. If we experience pain from our mother, we still hold out hope, maybe unconsciously, that she will be the one to come forward and plea for forgiveness. Why? Because at some time we put her on a pedestal–we made her the better of the two–she’s the adult, the mother. We might even have imagined a scene where she praises us and underlines that we are good children and have always been in her eyes and she is just so sorry.
But even a mother is human, not perfect, and often the only way to arrive at peace before that person dies is to extend the love and concern first–to be the strong one and forgive–let someone you have been angry with back into your heart.
Seinfeld’s “Serenity Now”
Do you remember the classic Seinfeld episode when high-strung Frank Costanza tries to lower his blood pressure by yelling “SERENITY NOW“? It’s truly comedic because the effort he makes is blatantly self-defeating. It’s a great illustration of how elusive peace of mind can be. But is it really that hard for us to find some contentment and then make it our own? Yes, when it comes to death. But again, communication–if at all possible–helps both the dying person and the one left behind. So how do we get there?
After George’s death, I found myself continuing to write to people I loved if they were dying; I wrote to my mother-in-law, as we were not in the same city. I thanked her for her love of me, for sharing her son with me and I let her know the things in my life that would always keep her alive in my heart. Very early on we had a few adjustments, but we loved each other and I just needed to say it in black and white.
Don’t Like to Write? Other Choices
Once I wrote a poem for a friend dying of bone cancer. But it doesn’t have to be writing–it can be a card you carefully choose and sign; food you drop off. If you are far apart send a gift that speaks to something you both share like wine, music, a favorite joke, or a favorite photograph, artwork or literature. Unsure as to what might work, you can check with your loved one’s caregiver. Again, communication is the key.
Another wonderful idea is paying a visit to your loved one and gently asking them questions about their life. Often being able to relive wonderful moments is a calming experience for a person who is dying, and you will benefit so much from what you learn. Then there are no regrets that you forgot to ask your parent or grandparent the family history.
When my friend Luke was diagnosed with lung cancer I began writing him letters. After the first one, I saw him and he told me he enjoyed the letter, so I kept it up. I wrote about ten letters over the months he was in and out of the hospital, fighting for his life. Luke was a big guy, warm and friendly and he extended that warmth when we first moved to Iowa. Though we were on opposite sides of the political fence (Iowa can be very political because of it’s First in the Nation status), it never mattered. He asked our son to become a Cub Scout and that helped us meet people in the community and feel welcome.
Weeks before his death, our church “roasted” him at his request. It was part of a fund raiser. But he was so ill he left the festivities early, so I sent him a copy of my words: Luke’s got a son he calls Little Luke. That’s in juxtaposition to Big Luke, Gigantic Luke–Luke the big lover, the big eater (he orders double and dessert too) the big dancer–but truly, the guy with the great big heart. I looked it up, the name Luke means light. Luke, you are a light in all of our lives, no, I take that back, a bright, powerful flashbulb–you just dazzle us.
And later I wrote: And Luke, this letter thing that we’ve had going has been good for me. I’ve learned about you and you’ve learned about me, which is what friendship is all about. Thanks for helping me become a fairly decent Iowan. Thanks for the help you gave my son. Thanks for just being you.
Luke read this an hour before he died. That was a gift to me. That was serenity of the highest kind.
Thanks to Google Images