"Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear
in children is increased with tales, so is the other."

Francis Bacon

At 10:28 AM 10/3/99 -0700, you wrote:
Hi Rich,
Can you get together this week? I could use a friend. I hope it's not hard on you to talk about my stepmother which might bring back bad memories of your mother and her passing, but you understand and somehow your words make me feel stronger. She's really bad. She says she has given up. She's in too much pain. She's been in and out of the hospital all week and the doctors say there is nothing they could do for her. I offered to stay with them to offer some care, but she won't let anyone see her. My dad, once so strong, sounds so weak and tired. I'm really scared. Doesn't help that I've been working so many hours and I'm just plain exhausted. Rescue me.


      Dear Kylie,

      I am sorry to hear about the deterioration in your stepmother's condition. However, you have been expecting precisely this for a long time now. It must be hard to die so painfully, and I can imagine your stepmother needs space to deal with it -- and if your stepmother needs her space, then so be it. Your father will ask you for help, when he needs it.

      As for you, nobody can "rescue" you. Friends and family can give love and support, but only you can "rescue" yourself. The same goes for your father. Recognize that you have very little control over what is happening right now. You cannot save your stepmother. Neither can you really do anything for your father, as his wife is dying and that bitter meal cannot be made less bitter or more digestible. The cast is set, and now you wait for the inevitable.

      I am sure currently and over the next few weeks you will be surrounded by scenes of pain and raw grief, death beds and funerals. Hospital room scenes and the last few moments of dwindling, pathetic life. The rapid descent into incoherence of the stricken sick and then their death. The undertaker, the funeral, the graveyard. The family members with their eyes swollen with crying, everyone wearing black, the unctuous consolations for "your loss." Don't I know this sad procession? I do! You say you are "scared." Death scares everyone. That is normal. Samuel Johnson goes so far as to that the "whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of death."

      But as someone with more than a little experience in watching people die let me suggest the following: it is a thing not entirely to be mourned. Echoing Lucretius, Francis Bacon writes: "Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other." He goes on to say, "It is as natural to die as it is to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful as the other." As your stepmother was once born, now she fulfills her life with her death. I can understand now that her time is limited, she has a lot to process. If your stepmother needs her space, then give it to her. You get to die only once. So important and intimate an experience, one wants to get it right.

      There is a method to the length of our lives, the measuring of which we do not entirely determine. We just don't have that kind of control! We could die tomorrow, or we could die many years from now; but die we will. And death being our common fate, it makes no sense either to avoid or fixate on it. That way lies madness, you know? Ideally, we live our lives, do our work, and then take our hat when it is our time. Petrarch tells us that to die well brings honor to an entire life. I think he is right. I myself hope to die well one day. Death is not the end of life, in my opinion. It is the fulfillment of a life.

      So your stepmother need not rage against the dying of the light, and you need not do so either on her behalf. Temper the raw grief of losing her with the joy and happiness of the years she spent with you and your father. Keep your heart open to the pain and sadness of her passing, as well as the warmth and love of the surrounding bonds of support and affection that connect you to your family and friends and which will become only more apparent as this crisis comes to a head. Be as present as you can to what is happening and soak everything in like a sponge. The next few weeks and months will be important as there will be much to experience, feel, and assimilate. Absorb all the emotion and drink it directly without the filter of reason; you can seek to understand it all later -- your stepmother is dying and will shortly be dead, but you will have years to make sense of her dying and death and to give it meaning. To come to accept one's imminent death in an incredibly personal decision, and you and your father need respect such a decision if it has come to such a pass. Real life is not a Disney movie with a pat ending. This is real life.

      A thing not to be feared, death should be embraced. Fear causes your soul to freeze and seize up. Fear not. You do not want to miss these events of the near future, and it really is more about your stepmother and father than about you, anyway. For them, be strong and be brave. In the quiet of your room at night, let the pain and sadness wash over and bestill you. And don't forget amidst all the lamentation and grief, life is still showing you its beauty.

      Tell your stepmother you love her while there is still time. Say your good-byes. Say what needs to be said. Before it is too late.

      I will say a prayer for your stepmother this evening.

      Very Truly Yours,

      Your Friend,


P.S. How about I cook for you Thursday evening? You can come over after work, we can talk as I cook and while we eat, and then you can be home at a reasonable hour so as to be in good shape for work the next morning. Let me know.

"It is as natural to die as it is to be born; and to a little infant,
perhaps, the one is as painful as the other."

Francis Bacon

"Death is psychologically as important as birth...Shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose."
Carl Gustav Jung
quoted in Time, obituary, June 16, 1961

"The wise man looks at death with honesty, dignity and calm, recognizing that the tragedy it brings is inherent in the great gift of life."
Corliss Lamont
Journal of Philosophy, January, 1965

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