The Obit Writer

More than 30 years ago, I worked for the Toledo Blade.  Although I technically was assigned to the City Desk, my designated “beat” was writing obituaries.  Day after day, I took calls from funeral homes, interviewed grieving survivors to get facts about the departed, and then wrote the obituary as a news story.  During my six months at the Blade, I wrote hundreds of them.  It was not an uplifting job.

IMG_1777That long-ago job, though, has ever since defined my role when there is a death in our family.  My task is set — and it is a good thing.  Everyone wants to be useful and helpful when death comes calling, and writing the obituary (which most newspapers now treat not as a news story, but as a paid death notice) is something I know how to do.  You wouldn’t want me figuring out flower arrangements, but the obit I can handle.

I also remember an experience that occurred years ago, when my grandmother died.  The minister who presided over her service kept calling her by the wrong name — which as you can imagine was not well-received by the members of our family.  Ever since, I’ve vowed that when members of our family who have died are formally remembered, whether in print or in remarks, someone who actually knew them will help to do the writing or the talking.

When I write an obit for a family member, I always think about what made the person unique, and try to make sure that gets included along with the standard facts about age, education, and survivors.  If I do my job right, when I’m finished I always feel a bit closer and more connected to the loved one who has gone beyond.  That’s a good thing, too.

When Death Knocks, And Knocks, And Knocks

When you reach your 50s, as Kish and I have, part of life is dealing with death.  Whether it is more senior members of your family succumbing to age-related conditions, or colleagues who die in inexplicable, tragic accidents, or friends who finally are taken down after long battles with cancer, at some point death becomes a significant, unfortunately recurring part of the reality of your life.

IMG_1087The question is how to deal with the losses, particularly when the deaths come in bunches — as so often seems to be the case.  People find themselves grappling with complex combinations of emotions that they don’t typically experience at the same time — such as grief, and guilt, and also anger — and everyone needs to deal with them in their own way.  When multiple deaths hit in a short period of time, and strike down people who are about your age, you can’t help but think of your own mortality, and wonder. 

Kish and I try to go to calling hours or memorial services, as a kind of tangible sign to the surviving family members of the significance and impact of the departed; I’m not sure whether the family members appreciate it or not, but it makes us feel better.  Collecting your thoughts about the person, mentally composing your own personal tribute, and focusing on the good, also seems to help.  And as we’ve gotten older, and seen how people respond to such losses in different ways, I find that I’ve become a lot less judgmental and a lot more accepting about how people respond.  

Ultimately, though, you just hope that the period of bad news finally ends, and a period of good news begins.  We’ve got a family wedding coming up, and we’re looking forward to it.

My Periodic Glimpse Of The Aging End Game

With Mom in an assisted living facility, my visits to see her have exposed me to the impact of old age in ways I’ve never seen before.  It’s been an eye-opener.

Typically my interaction with the residents happens in two scenarios — coming and going, and in the dining room.  When you enter the facility, you pass outdoor benches and rockers.  If the weather permits, there are usually some residents outside.  Most of them are smokers.  It was a bit jarring the first time I saw 85-year-old women dragging away on cigarettes, but the smokers probably figure what the hell — why not, at this point? Curiously, the smokers seem to be among the residents in the best overall shape.

IMG_1147Many of the other residents are congregated in the large common room near the entrance.  Some of them are in wheelchairs, and most of the rest use walkers.  Some are sleeping — usually deeply, often with heads back and mouths wide open — and others are just sitting.  Although there usually are many people in the room, there typically isn’t much conversation.  Even when I walk in on an event, like a bingo game run by a chipper assistant or an accordion performance, many of the residents are disengaged.

Some residents still get dressed up and take care with their appearance, and others have just let it go.  You’ll see women in make-up and jewelry and coordinated outfits and others who just wear loose shifts.  Some of the people clearly are with it, and others aren’t.  Recently, when Mom was still down in the dining room when I arrived, I sat at her table with a cheerful woman who, upon being introduced, immediately told me that she had no short term memory.  Within a minute, she repeated herself several times.  She clearly was aware of her condition, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Mom’s assisted living facility is a nice place, as such facilities go.  It’s kept very clean, the meals are well-prepared, and the staff members are friendly and attentive and work hard at what has to be a very tough job.  Most of the residents seem to have accepted their situations and are . . . waiting, and trying to make the best of things.  They can’t take care of themselves, their spouses are gone, and they really don’t have any good alternatives.

Even though I’ve been visiting the place for more than a year, I’m still sorting through my reactions to the very complicated issues raised by the end-game scenario.

Searching For A Scientific Explanation Of Near-Death Experiences

If you’ve ever heard someone recount a near-death experience, you know it can be chilling.  They speak with absolute conviction about the sensation of rising out of their body, seeing their surroundings from above, and then moving rapidly to a bright yet soothing light — among other common themes.

IMG_0770Is there a scientific explanation for the fact that so many people who have gone to the brink have the same perceptions?  This week researchers reported on studies of rats that showed a huge surge in brain activity after the heart stops beating.  The study found a spike in high frequency brainwaves called gamma oscillations, to even higher levels than exist in alive, awake rats.  The brain activity was consistent with perception of visual activity, conscious processing, and heightened communication among different parts of the brain.  Then, of course, the rats die and brain activity ceases.

The study has provoked a lot of speculation about whether the rat experience is replicated in humans, and whether it could explain the vivid encounters reported by those who have had a close brush with death.  The theory is that the surge in brain activity after the oxygen flow stops produces the sharp visual sensations and altered sense of time that are reported by many survivors.  As the Washington Post reports, however, there is skepticism and dispute within the scientific community about whether the rat study can tell us much about the human experience and can explain the uncanny similarity of the experiences reported by people of different cultures and religious faiths.

We know that there are many people who have had a near-death experience and who believe that what they saw and felt was real, deeply meaningful, and had an intensely spiritual, even cosmic significance.  Entire websites are devoted to discussing such experiences and large conventions are held so that survivors can share their perceptions.  Many people, including those who have just lost a loved one, find great comfort in hearing about these experiences.

What really happens when we die?  It is the eternal question, and one that science probably cannot answer. We’ll just have to find out when it happens to us.

Hugo’s Last Words

Some people have been making fun of the deathbed words of Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela.  According to a general who was present, Chavez said:  “I don’t want to die.  Please don’t let me die.”

The general believes Chavez said those words because he loved Venezuela, but some people are contrasting Chavez’s swaggering, strongman image with the last words and suggesting that Chavez really wasn’t so courageous after all.

I’m no fan of Chavez — who I thought was just another bullying, egotistical Latin American control freak who glorified himself at the expense of his people — but such comments seem awfully mean-spirited to me.  I doubt that Chavez was thinking of Venezuela when he expressed a desire to live; instead, like so many of us, he was simply afraid of what lay ahead.  Maybe he was worried about being judged for what he has done, maybe he was fearful of being consigned to hell, maybe he was terrified of the yawning void — or maybe he just enjoyed his time on Earth and wanted to make it last as long as possible.

How many people face impending death with courage and serenity?  I’d guess not many, and I doubt that I’ll be among the few when my time inevitably comes.  Hugo Chavez should be judged by what he did, not by what he said when death lay dead ahead.

Too Many Funerals

When we were in our 20s, we were in the wedding zone.  Every month or so, it seemed, Kish and I would be off to a “wedding weekend,” attending the nuptials of friends and family members.

Now we seem to have entered the funeral zone.  Rather than the great joy of weddings, we’re experiencing the emptiness and sadness of loss.

IMG_0850The prevalence of funerals seems surprising, but it shouldn’t be.  According to American morbidity statistics, death rates multiply significantly when people enter their 50s.  Suddenly more of our rock-like, long-time friends are dying.  It’s jarring, and unsettling.  And when you add the increased death rates of our generation to the expected funerals of older family members and acquaintances, it seems like much more time is spent putting on the gray suit and dark tie and going to funerals and calling hours.

I’m a strong believer in going to calling hours.  Although I always feel sorry for the family of the departed, as they try to deal with their grief while standing for long periods greeting visitors, I think it is important to show up and give the family a tangible sign of how important the departed was to friends and colleagues.  In our hurly-burly modern world, the fact that people have taken time from their busy days to stand in line in order to shake the hands of spouses, children, and siblings and murmur a few words of remembrance and consolation makes a huge statement.  I think the physical presence of people who want to pay their respects helps those who are wrestling with the awful loss to understand the real significance of their loved one.

So I will go, and stand in line, and think about the person who has gone beyond, and hug friends who also are there, and greet the widow and kids and try as best I can to convey what the departed meant to me.  I just wish there weren’t as many opportunities to do so these days.

Depths Of Depression

The world lost a good man this week.  He ultimately succumbed, as so many have before him, to the ravages of depression, and those who knew him, personally or professionally, are devastated.

Depression is such a terrible, pernicious condition.  It isn’t readily apparent when people are suffering from depression.  It isn’t visible, like a broken leg or a wasting disease.  Often people who are depressed try, successfully, to hide it from casual acquaintances — but the blackness and anguish and despair are always there, brooding and lingering under the surface, ready to pull them down again and again and again, until they just can’t tolerate it any longer.

Those of us who are fortunate, and who don’t suffer from chronic depression, can’t possibly understand what it truly means to be depressed.  It’s like a person who has known only perfect health trying to understand what it is like to live with constant, crippling pain.  You can’t comprehend the life-changing impact of permanent pain until you personally experience sustained physical torment whenever you draw a breath.  For the depressed person, the agony is just as real and just as unbearable.

Because depression doesn’t have physical manifestations, and because many people who suffer from depression are embarrassed by their condition, it’s difficult to measure just how widespread the problem of chronic depression really is.  Some estimate that as many as 1 in 6 Americans suffer from that affliction, with an economic cost of tens of billions of dollars.

But those are just numbers.  The real cost is in the losses suffered by families and friends who lose a loved one.  The real cost is the death of each person who was a good father and husband and friend, an active participant in his community and his workplace and his children’s lives, someone who made a real difference in other people’s lives.  When such special people lose their battle to this dreadful condition, the cost is incalculable.

Considering “Death Cafe”

In America, is there a taboo about talking — or even thinking — about death?  If so, how should people deal with that taboo?

Recently the first “Death Cafe” to be held in the United States occurred here in Columbus.  (I didn’t attend, but I heard it mentioned on a local NPR station and thought the idea sounded interesting.)  “Death Cafe” began in the United Kingdom; it seeks to deal with the death taboo by encouraging people to meet and talk about death over tea and cake.  The underlying concept, as the linked website explains, is that thinking and talking about death will cause people to focus on leaving a legacy and ensuring that their lives have meaning — and that focus may lead them to behave in a more selfless way before they hit the point of ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

I’m not sure that there is a taboo, in America, in talking about death.  To be sure, it doesn’t come up often in friendly conversation, but I don’t sense that is due to custom or societal prohibition.  Instead, I think it’s simply because there are lots of other interesting things to discuss.  When tragedy strikes and a close friend or loved one dies, I don’t feel constrained about discussing death, and I don’t think my friends and family members do, either.  Some people may not want to confront their mortality, but many of us recognize the inevitability of our demise and at least want to make sure that we have things in place for our survivors.  Why else would people buy life insurance or pre-pay for a cemetery plot?

That said, if there are people who feel abashed in talking about death, and Death Cafe helps them overcome their reluctance, the idea has served a salutary purpose.  I’m all in favor of anything that might make people behave better to their fellow man in the here and now.

Confronting The Abyss

If you’ve been on planet Earth for a while, you’ve inevitably had to deal with death — and you have come to realize that it affects people differently, and they deal with it differently.  There is no right or wrong way.

My first job out of college was writing obituaries for the Toledo Blade.  In those days, the Blade treated obituaries as standard news stories, which meant the facts of the individual’s life and death, the names of survivors, and so forth had to be confirmed with a member of the decedent’s family.  It was not exactly a job well-suited to a callow, arrogant youth.  Some of the grieving family members I called to get the necessary information were so distraught and caught up in the rawness of their emotion they could barely speak, and I could feel the intensity of their pain through the phone line.  Others were ready for my call and very pleasant and business-like as they rattled off the names of survivors and the dates and times of calling hours.

That job taught me that there is no one way to respond to the loss of a friend or loved one.  (Being in heavily ethnic Toledo, where names like Czyzewski and Szilagyi were not uncommon, it also taught me the importance of double-checking spellings and careful proofreading.  People who open their newspaper and see that the name of a decedent or survivor is misspelled can get very angry, indeed.)

Some people don’t want to dwell on their pain; they prefer to move on and try not to think about it.  Others want to be by themselves, to wrestle with their mix of feelings and memories without having to put on a brave face for others.  I prefer to be with others who are dealing with the same loss.  I think there is a reason why, in many different cultures that developed at points across the globe, the deeply rooted tradition is for the community to come together to remember those who have gone on.  For me, it’s better to share stories and laughs and experiences with like-minded people than to thrash about alone, obsessing about questions of cosmic unfairness that can never be satisfactorily answered.

Farewell To A Friend

I lost a good friend today, and the world is a meaner, sorrier place because of it.

Jocelyn Prewitt-Stanley, left, and Alycia Broz

Her name was Jocelyn Prewitt-Stanley.  She died from complications related to the birth of her first child, Emmerson — a child that she and her husband Ted dearly wanted.

Jocelyn was a lawyer at our firm.  I first worked with her when she was in our Cleveland office and had the misfortune to get a project from me.  When she moved to Columbus a few years later, I began to work with her more and more.  She was a fine trial lawyer, a hard worker, a good thinker, and a skilled advocate who was justifiably proud of the good results she achieved for clients.  When I had to assemble a dedicated “core team” to work on matters for an important client, I chose Jocelyn because I knew she would do a great job — and she did.

Of course, being a good lawyer was only a tiny fraction of what made Jocelyn a wonderful person.  No one should be defined solely by their work, and Jocelyn surely wasn’t.  She possessed a deep and indefinable serenity — yet she also had one of the great guffaws you could ever hope to hear.  She had a marvelous sense of humor, and when she became animated while telling a war story, the fingers on her hands splayed wide and her eyes lit up.  She had a dazzling smile and a dazzling personality to match.  She was active in charities and professional organizations.  She loved dogs and happily advised me, all too frequently, on how to better train the canine miscreants of the Webner household.

After we had worked together on several occasions, Jocelyn asked me to be her mentor.  I accepted with pleasure, and Jocelyn became the senior member of our merry band of mentees.  Although I technically was the mentor, I’m quite confident that I learned far more from Jocelyn than she ever learned from me.  I admired her candor and appreciated her trust, and was grateful for her patience as she listened to my side of the issues we discussed.  She worked tirelessly to help me see things from a different perspective, and she succeeded.  As I mentioned, she was a very effective advocate.

The world is a beautiful place, but it also can be inexpressibly cruel.  When an occasion of great joy like the birth of a child arrives, it is unimaginable that death might also be lurking around the corner.  Those of us who are religious may be able to find comfort in faith; the rest of us can only rail at the gross, cosmic injustice of a fate that snatches away a person like Jocelyn much, much, much too soon — and also be thankful that we had the privilege of getting to know her, even for a short period.

My heart breaks for the loss experienced by Ted, by Jocelyn’s family and Ted’s family, and most of all for the void left for little Emmerson, who will never get to know the mother who was so very ready to shower her new baby with all the love she could muster.

The Tree That Wouldn’t Die

We  used to have two pear trees in the middle of the arced flower beds around our patio.  They were the same kind of trees, planted at the same time.  Some years ago one of them was taken down by a storm.  Two years ago the other one began to split in two and had to be chopped down, leaving us with no shade and two stumps in our flower bed where we now perch flower pots.

The first tree that fell just died.  It left a stump and roots behind, but they promptly began to rot away and now break apart easily into spongy shards when nicked by a shovel.  The other tree, however, refuses to give up the ghost.  Two years later, it still clings to life as best it can, sending up dozens of leafy shoots from its rock hard roots.  The shoots grow up among the flowers and through the shrubs framing the rear of the flower bed, and because they are harming the shrubs and interfering with the flowers, I snip them all off at ground level — and then, a month or two later, I do the same thing over again.

As this process has repeated itself I’ve developed a grudging respect for this feisty tree that refuses to accept its unfortunate fate.  Now I feel somewhat guilty when I take out my clipper and cut down the shoots.  I guess some trees, like some people, are just more stubborn than others.

Looking For A Quick, Clean Exit, Far Into The Future

How do you want your life to end?  An even more difficult question:  how do you want the lives of your loved ones to end?  An article in New York magazine, about a family’s struggle with their mother’s long, slow decline — and the related emotional and societal costs — raises those stark heartbreaking issues.

I think most people would like to go out like my grandfather did.  He lived to be 99, kept his mental and physical health until the end, then had a stroke while eating breakfast and died later that day.  No institutionalization.  No dementia.  No months or years of a twilight existence, apparently unaware of his surroundings, experiencing bedsores and diaper changes and incomprehension.

Of course, we don’t get to make stark choices between the ideal and the awful.  Instead, families deal with impossible judgment calls.  Should the frail 84-year-old woman with the bad hip endure the pain, or have an implant operation that could give her a pain-free existence — or produce a shock to the system that causes her to slide into an irreversible downward spiral?  If an elderly relative decides not to undertake life-extending treatment, should the grief-stricken children try to argue him out of his decision?  How should a family deal with an institutionalized Alzheimer’s victim in the bewildered, angry, unrecognizing end stages of mental decline and the guilt that comes from not wanting to see their relative in that terrible condition?

The author of the New York article yearns for a “death panel” — he calls it a “deliverance panel” — where family members could appeal for a relative’s death.  There’s a reason why the concept of such panels provoked such opposition during the recent debate on health care reform, however.  What modern Solomons would staff such panels?  The doctors who want to sharpen their skills at an aggressive life-extending procedure and get paid for their efforts?  The bureaucrat who sees his health care budget exploding and wants to rein in costs?  The hospital administrator who thinks the room the patient occupies could be better used by someone receiving more care and treatment?  The children who are heartsick about the potential loss, hoping for a miracle, guilt-ridden, exhausted, overwhelmed, and concerned about their inheritances, all at once?

There are no easy answers to these terrible issues.  I think the appropriate first step is for everyone to make their own decisions about their own care, when they are still healthy and capable of doing so, and memorialize those decisions in some kind of binding way so that their surviving relatives aren’t saddled with impossible choices.  Is the prospect of long-term institutional care and constant pain a source of unimaginable horror, or would you be willing to put up with it in order to meet your great-grandchildren?  Only the individual can know how much of a deviation from the ideal end-of-days scenario they are willing to endure.

“Reports Of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated”

Somewhere, Mark Twain — who coined the classic phrase appearing above, upon learning that his death had been mistakenly reported — must be smiling.

Today Hugo Chavez, the thuggish Venezuelan dictator who is undergoing ongoing treatment for cancer, had to call a state-run TV station to try to dispel rumors that he was already dead.  Chavez said that he is in Cuba getting radiation treatment for a pelvic tumor and contended that the rumors were part of a psychological war against him.

I’m sure it’s not easy being a loud-mouthed dictator under any circumstances, and it’s probably even harder to be a successful autocrat when you have to interrupt the normal propaganda programming on national TV to deny rumors of your own death.  It’s undoubtedly tough to rule by bullying and intimidation when those you are trying to bully and intimidate think you might already be toes up.

A Walk For A Friend

It’s hard to believe a year has passed since our friend and colleague, Ken Golonka, died tragically and unexpectedly.

Today was the first annual Ken Golonka Memorial Walk, a three-kilometer stroll through the grounds of the Franklin Park Conservatory, with the proceeds to benefit the National Blood Clot Alliance.  It was a cold and overcast day with a hint of rain in the air, but many of Ken’s friends and family members were there nevertheless.  The weather may have been chilly, but our spirits were warmed by the memories of our missing friend — by our interest in doing what we can to help make sure that the health issues that befell Ken don’t take other people out of our lives.

It’s always difficult to deal with the death of a loved one; it leaves such a terrible void.  It’s heartwarming to see Ken’s family and friends working to make something positive out of his passing.  Ken himself was someone who was dedicated to service in his church, his community, and his profession.  He would be pleased to see that his family and friends are following in his footsteps.

 

The Death Of A Dog

Yesterday Effie died.  She was a 13-year-old black Labrador Retriever who was the boon companion of Kish’s mother.  Faith has had Effie since she was a puppy, and she loved that dog as truly and absolutely as any living being can love another.  As you would expect, Faith is devastated by her loss.

Since the dawn of human history, people and dogs have formed close bonds.  In such cases, the dogs become a part of the family in every sense of the word.  They provide company, and attention, and humorous moments, and a kind of adoration.  In return, you feed them, walk them, pick up their droppings, and care for them to the point of paying hundreds and even thousands of dollars for medical treatment without a second thought.  But a dog’s life is all-too-short — 13 is ripe old age for a Lab — and inevitably the human members of the family must deal with decline and death of the beloved pet.  The death always leaves an ache that people who don’t have pets perhaps can’t fully appreciate, but that fellow dog lovers know all too well.

Effie ate from the table, was too fat, and had an annoying whimper.  Her black fur was a constant presence on the chairs and carpets in her house.  But those were small things, really, compared to the good company, happiness, and devotion that she provided.  Her very presence made a widow’s life more purposeful and less lonely. My guess is that Effie would consider her life to have been a fulfilling one.

Effie is buried in a spot that Faith picked out in advance, next to her predecessor pets, on the edge of a field where she will hear the breeze ruffling the leaves of the cornstalks.