On Death and Dying
Welcome to our monthly Wellness Wednesday. This month, I have chosen to reflect on death and dying, quite frankly, because I am grieving. A few days ago, Mama P, my third and last mother figure, my adopted American mother, died. She was preceded in death fifteen years ago by my beloved mother-in-law, who died during her favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. Six years ago, my own mother died basking in the sun on a lounge chair while on vacation with us in Myrtle Beach. And now, my Mama P is gone. She, too, had the foresight to die on vacation, surrounded by her entire family on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten. She had reached the ripe old age of 102, and she was ready to meet her maker.
The truth is, Mama P had been ready for a while. Her mind was in full functioning order, but her body was tired and broken down and she was in pain most of the time. She had buried her beloved husband, who died from a sudden heart attack, many moons ago. She had also buried her older daughter, who died from kidney disease. It is said that there is no greater grief than burying a child, and Mama P lived with that grief every day.
Once Mama P retired from teaching, she moved in with her younger daughter and helped run her busy household. She cooked the most fabulous meals – lamb and gumbo were her specialties – and baked the best lemon meringue pies ever. She drove her grand-kids to activities and to church, and her constant presence afforded her daughter and son-in-law the opportunity to pursue distinguished careers. They could do so because they knew Mama P had their backs.
My husband was her adopted spiritual son, and thus, I became her adopted daughter. In fact, she traveled with an American delegation of eight extended family members to our wedding in Copenhagen, Denmark 34 years ago this month. Then she, together with my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, my husband’s high school principal and wife, and a family friend, travelled with us on our honeymoon to Greece. No worries, we stayed at two different hotels, but we would pop by their hotel every night on our way out to dinner.
Mama P was that kind of woman: hardworking, faithful, God-centered, loving and kind, fun and adventurous, someone who even made it to our honeymoon. Once I moved to America, she stood in the gap on behalf of my own mother, and was here to give me hugs, home-cooked meals, advice and encouragement. I was a young student, newly married to the man of my dreams, soon to be a new mother, and an immigrant far away from home, so you know I needed it.
I chose the baby-delivering business of medicine because I love life and I love being there for the miracle of new life. My patients are, for the most part, healthy and happy, and the world is their oyster, whether they know it or not. I get to advise and aide in sickness and in health, and it is a blessing to me. However, death and life are closely connected, even in the baby-making business. To grieve is natural. It is painful, but necessary. In her book, On Death & Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes the five stages of grief so well: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Learning to transition gracefully through these stages is just as important to living a full life as is the ability to experience joy at the sight of a new baby. Life and death go hand in hand, and we could all do a better job of preparing for and dealing with death.
Every day is a gift that should not be taken for granted. We all have to leave this earth some day, thought most of us wish it to be later rather than sooner. Death waits for no one, and it does not discriminate, and not everyone gets 102 years to get it right. But it is not how long we live, but rather how well we lived and what we did with our lives that counts. As the great poet and author Maya Angelou said, “People won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” So, my question to you today is, how do you make people feel? Are you present and available to your loved ones? Are you kind, loving and patient? Do you have forgiveness in your heart or do you carry grudges?
Everyone’s life matters – yours and mine, too. Let’s not waste another minute on minutia, but make sure to live our lives to the fullest, bringing peace and harmony with us wherever we go.
Dode Washington, MD