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What We Need to Talk About But Never Do

Photograph by Twenty20

This fall, my husband and I lost a close friend. We also learned another is terminally ill. We ask each other, "Is this the stage we are at?"

I want to handle death with strength and grace, so I turned to people who have always exemplified that for me: my Jewish in-laws from Boston and my Christian Aunt Sue from Des Moines.

My father-in-law, Herb, is 78 and still bikes the world. My mother-in-law is 74 and stopped biking in third-world countries three years ago at 71. I mean, these people have energy and are happy, and they've lost people.

Here's what they had to say on how they've handled deaths:

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Pictured: Karen and Herb Kavet, 74 and 78, in Norway. I mean look at them.

From my mother-in-law, Karen:

As for me, I have been very fortunate. The greatest loss in my life was my camp BFF Gloria, who died at 43 in a plane crash and left two children, 8 and 5. But we had grown apart, and I didn't even know she had died for a couple of years. Still, when I found out, I was just devastated and a mess for weeks afterwards. Luckily, through Facebook, I am able to watch her daughter's life journey and to know that Gloria's legacy lives on through her.

I have been surprised at how much I think about and miss my parents, despite the fact that they lived very long and mostly fruitful lives. After my parents died, I went to Friday night services as often as I could for almost two years and found great comfort in just being at Temple and saying the Kaddish for them. I visit their graves frequently and talk to them as if they are still around, even though I don't really believe in heaven, and I don't picture them in a "better" place. They are just gone to me, but what they did and what they taught me lives on in my daily life.

Herb and I are now at the stage in our lives when many of our friends and acquaintances have either died or are very ill. What is most difficult is watching once vibrant people who now have debilitating illnesses with no hope of improvement. I think at this age, it is inevitable that our contemporaries die. Sometimes the loss is far greater than it is at other times, but it isn't a tragedy like it is when one is younger. It is just a fact of life.

From my Father-In-Law Herb:

I lost my mother when I was 9. The results obviously were shattering but likely had such an overwhelming affect on my life that I couldn't possibly condense them into something you could use. Her death was probably cushioned by the large family support system I had. An older sister raised me, an older brother was a wonderful mentor and an enormous gang of cousins, aunts and uncles all lived close by in the New York area.

I remember a classmate dying when I was in grade school. His death had little effect on me. Once a little girl, a friend of Matt's, died while they were in pre school. Matt looked sad and said, "Now she'll never grow up." As good a eulogy as I can imagine.

Death is probably one of the strongest reasons for faith. While it is delightful and comforting to think there is a heaven and you'll be reunited some day with those you loved, the concept is certainly unproven and most likely a fantasy. I recall a close business partner who lost a young daughter. The minister used faith to comfort them and seemed to pretty well convince them that she now was in the arms of Jesus. Faith certainly helped them. Faith is a result of the unknown and the uncertainty of life and humans' desire to find comfort and meaning.

Though I now believe in little, I must say that, lately, I've had some personal experiences encountering the concept of reincarnation. Another nice idea—unlikely to exist—but fun to think about. It's all in my book.

Besides working out like crazy, which generates mood-enhancing endorphins, eating healthy, which makes you feel and look great, and, perhaps most important, doing childish (possibly dangerous) crazy things like jumping out of airplanes, fighting with guys years younger than you, participating in activities and holding your own with younger people, (like skiing with Gregg and Matt). For one thing you can figure, "Hey, I beat them, and I'm still alive."

A few years ago, I started reading obituaries. I hate doing it but find myself drawn to them. It scares me to see so many people dying who are younger than me. But with each birthday I can say "Ha, ha, ha, look at all those people I beat!"

As far as your request being depressing, it didn't faze me a bit. I still am fit enough to feel invulnerable. Death doesn't bother me at all. What bothers me is not being here anymore and having my sons putting all my stuff in a dumpster.

[A few days after reading what my in-laws had written Karen reached back out to me and had this to say]:

In our Yom Kippur services there are two readings that resonate with Herb and me. Herb's favorite (the italicized part is what he refers to most often):

Death is Not the Enemy

I often feel that death is not the enemy of life, but its friend; for it is the knowledge that our years are limited, which makes them so precious. It is the truth that time is but lent to us, which makes us, at our best, look upon our years as a trust handed into our temporary keeping.

We are like children privileged to spend a day in a great park, a park filled with many gardens and playgrounds and azure-tinted lakes and boats, sailing upon tranquil waves.

True, the day allotted to each of us is not the same in length, in light, in beauty. Some children of earth are privileged to spend a long and sunlit day in the garden of the earth. For others, the day is shorter, cloudier, and dusk descends more quickly as in a winter's tale.

Whether our life is a long, summery day or a shorter, wintry afternoon, we know that inevitably there are storms and squalls, which overcast even the bluest heaven. There are sunlit rays which pierce the darkest autumn sky. The day we are privileged to spend in the great park of life is not the same for all human beings; but there is enough beauty and joy and gaiety in the hours, if we but treasure them.

Then for each of us the moment comes when the great nurse, death, takes us by the hand and quietly says, "It is time to go home. Night is coming. It is your bedtime, child of earth. Come, you're tired. Lie down at last in the quiet nursery of nature and sleep. Sleep well. The day is gone. Stars shine in the canopy of eternity."

This is my mother-in-law's favorite:

If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements, ourselves for always and never any others—could the answer be in doubt?

I also interviewed my lovely, artistic, former piano teacher Aunt Sue from Iowa. Here is what she had to say:

(My Aunt Sue with her mom, Jane, this summer in Iowa. Sue asked her how old she was; she said, 80. Sue told her she was 101, and Jane had a smile and laugh after this moment of disbelief.)

Interesting, most people don't like to discuss it. We are mortals after all. But we don't really come to grips with it until we age or have a serious illness. I lost a friend when I was 30—she was a couple of years older. Cancer. She lived two doors down from our house on 44th. I remember talking with her about her funeral, her illness, her family. I watched her progress from a healthy young woman to being weak in bed and finally dying. She left behind a husband and two young boys. From that I realized life just goes on. It's out of our control.

I believe that although our bodies return to dust, our soul lives on. That's according to the Christian faith, taken from the Bible. I don't understand it but accept it by faith. Christianity is based on Christ being resurrected …"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved … for God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believes on Him shall be saved." We just need to accept this gift by faith.

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We all have a strong desire to live. ... No one wants to die and leave this life. After going through breast cancer, I really realized how precious this gift of life is. "This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad," from Psalms. Each day is a gift!

Just reading a book by Billy Graham, "The Reason for my Hope," ..."It is the absolute assurance that there is life after death. For those who have lost loved ones—and we all have—hope brings comfort to our aching souls. It perseveres, persuades, prevails."

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