Even Slow Death Feels Sudden

He was solo climbing the Matterhorn. Eric fell. Eric died. A phone rang . . .

He was solo climbing the Matterhorn. Eric fell. Eric died. A phone rang . . .

My father’s dying spanned the better—or worst—stretch of a decade. Though not on his death certificate, Dad died from dementia. His decline was slow, like a daily drop of water filling a tub.

My mother’s dying occurred in the hottest stretch of a singular summer, a handful of weeks from diagnosis to death. Though not on her death certificate, Mom died because of an opportunistic, savage cancer. But her rapid decline also unfolded like a film stuck in slow motion. A solitary hour holding her hand in intensive care could feel like a week.

Then, in the midst of their dying, the phone rang. It rang while I wished my father’s cruel dementia would please, please, please come to an end. It rang while I longingly, lovingly prayed for an impossible miracle to spare Mom more pain.

In one call, my older sister informed me Dad had died. In the other, a year-and-a-half later, a nurse spoke on a phone down the hallway from Mom’s hospital room to tell me about the death.

For all the differences in their dying, and in their diseases and our decisions about care, one of my first thoughts after placing the phone back on the cradle was . . .

Dad’s death was sudden.

Mom’s death was sudden.

How often does death feel like that?

I’ve been with those who had a loved one abruptly die. A morning dawned with a bowl of instant oatmeal and a mumbled, “Have a good day.” Hours later, while one continued whatever was normal or boring or predictable, a terrible accident killed the other. When that happens, it is a tragedy and travesty and oh-so-hard to heal from. But it’s not just accidents that are sudden. Suicides. A loner with a gun at your son’s school. A roadside bomb explodes as your in-the-army daughter drives a truck from point A to the last point in her life. In his heart-wrenching “Lament for a Son,” Nicholas Wolterstorff recalls hearing about his son’s death in Europe. He was solo climbing the Matterhorn. Eric fell. Eric died. A phone rang . . .

It is so wrong, so profoundly wrong, for a child to die before its parents. It’s hard enough to bury our parents. But that we expect. Our parents belong to our past. Our children belong to our future. We do not visualize our future without them. How can I bury my son, my future, one of the next in line? He was meant to bury me!

It is impossible to prepare for sudden death.

And though different—shockingly different—there is a link between Eric Wolterstorff’s Matterhorn accident and my father’s glacially slow decline.

Death becomes a blunt reality.

And it always, always, always feels unreal.

How I wanted my father to die! For years, with his dementia wrecking every aspect of his life, and my mother’s life, and in our family’s way of living, his dying felt like it would go on forever.

But that damned call came.

Or for others, people I’ve prayed and cried with, who held vigil by their loved one’s death bed, and who waited hours and days and weeks and months and wondered—just like me—why death would not come . . . but then it did. The parent or grandparent, the precious aunt who raised them, or the lovely, perfect wife who suffered for years with cancer, shifted from someone breathing to someone as still as a huge boulder in a tiny creek.

No chest moving.

No eyes fluttering.

No squeeze, or hope of a squeeze, of the hand.

Life there. Life gone. How can that be?

A loved one plunges down a mountain. And your phone rings 4,000 miles away.

You grasp a loved one’s hand during years of distress and disease.

There is a slender thread of disbelief that connects both to the same reaction.

We are never ready for death. It always feels sudden.

If you’ve read this far, I suspect there’s little I’ve written that brings a sense of hope. Now, perhaps, you dread death even more. Now, perhaps, you’re more aware that you can’t prepare. Now, perhaps, you’ll do everything in your power to cling to life. To your life; to your beloved’s life.

Of course you will! I believe we are built for life. Isn’t our DNA wired for “on,” but not “off?” Yes, we’re all mortal. But as much as every religious tradition has sacred scripture and reassuring (or not so reassuring) stories about the afterlife, they all focus more on what each person can do today. No one can claim, with certainty, that the streets of heaven are paved in gold or if there are seventy virgins awaiting the death of a martyr. We don’t know.

But we know today.

Whether or not you are “religious,” the gift of knowing only today means our focus is life. Breath. Hope. Miracles. Cures. Courage.

It does take immense courage to be with another during the journey of dying. Along that path, there is no time to prepare to prepare for death.

And so it will feel sudden.

It will take immense courage to decide not to seek a cure. I hope you are able to share your wishes with others while still active and vital. I hope those who matter most support you when you stop the next chemo treatment, or next trip to the hospital, and get ready to die.

But you are still living when you make that decision.

Then death, a day or decade later, comes.

It will feel sudden.

How can death not?

I limp to a conclusion with the obvious, with what I (and many others) have shared before and will share again: this moment is our gift. A phone call we can never be ready for may rattle us tomorrow with the worst news. But what can be done today—with a call, a text, a walk, an email—that reveals your here and now love?

life is

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Photo of Matterhorn from here.

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  1. My loved one lingered for many years before dying. She’d make 1 step forward and 2 steps back. She spent that time preparing us for her death. We spent every weekend sharing and talking, laughing and weeping. To this day, when I talk about it, it feels so sudden when she passed. No one worked harder than we did to be ready. I came to understand that the stuff part of life can be organized and labeled but her leaving, we were never going to be ready or prepared enough. I wish I’d understood that then, when she died. I would have been more forgiving of myself. I remember asking myself over and over, why is this so hard, you knew this was coming. I bought in to the idea that knowing somehow cushions the loss, and makes the grieving process easier. For me it did not.
    Well said Larry. Thanks so much.

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