Someone once said, “Don’t worry about getting older; when you stop getting older, you’re dead.” Well, I do worry about getting older, and I also worry about being dead. As old as I am, in the age of COVID-19, it is hard not to think about death at least a little, and I have thought about death a lot during this unusual year of 2020. I feel the same as Woody Allen, who said, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But I have thought less about my death and more about the death of others.
Let’s start with the deaths of over 240,000 fellow Americans who have died from complications from COVID-19 and the promises from our public health officials of many more deaths to come. I do not know personally (yet) anyone who has died from COVID-19. Still, my heart breaks from hearing the stories of so many families affected by losing a loved one (and sometimes many loved ones). The news of those who died alone because of quarantine requirements or healthcare workers who died trying to save the lives of those affected by this deadly disease always touches me.
So far, more than 1700 healthcare workers have died due to COVID-19. My daughter-in-law is an infectious disease doctor, so she has been front and center in the battle against the coronavirus. She protects herself well to avoid contracting the disease, but it has been hard for her (as it is for all healthcare workers) to shield herself from the mental toil associated with the disease. For many months, she took pride in the fact that she had lost no one to COVID-19, but the COVID-19 odds are stacked against even the best healthcare workers. And death has become inevitable. My wife and I have shed tears along with her at the loss of the handful of lives she has lost. We didn’t know any of them, but along with the poet, John Donne, “Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.”
But death in the age of COVID-19 became personal to me, even though the disease has not been the cause. It started earlier in the year when my sister-in-law, Jeanne, died suddenly. When I heard the news of Jeanne’s passing, I immediately called my brother. I wanted to be near him and throw my arms around him—to offer my condolences and my love. His response? Don’t come. Only ten people could attend the funeral services, which meant only my brother, his children, and their spouses could be there. Because of COVID-19, we have not even been able to grieve and honor our dead as we usually do. Through the wonders of modern technology, we could participate in the service remotely, but the Zoom feed failed, and we were able to hear only a recording of the proceedings after they occurred. And although those services contained great expressions of love for my departed sister-in-law, I felt cheated that I could not be there in person to add my voice to her praise and to share my personal experiences with her.
In the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Fred Rogers states, “Death is something many of us are uncomfortable speaking about. But to die is to be human. And anything human is mentionable. And if it is mentionable, it’s manageable.” Psychologists sometimes encourage us to name our fears. If we can name them, they become more manageable. I love this clip from the film, Patch Adams,[i] naming death in every way imaginable:
Patch Adams would be a welcome guest at any funeral in my family, as they are generally filled with more laughter than tears as we celebrate the lives of our lost loved ones. Although we shed our share of tears as well. But laughter can be a great comforter.
When someone dies, especially before their time, at least in our estimation, we often wonder why. Why, for example, would God take a father in the prime of his life, leaving behind a mother and three young children? Telling that mother or her children that God needed their father more on the other side provides little comfort. In this clip from P.S. I Love You,[ii] a grieving Holly (played by Hillary Swank) tries to understand why God killed her young husband:
When trying to understand God’s ways, perhaps being a Yankee fan is as good an explanation as any. Or maybe, God had nothing to do with it. As Forrest Gump taught us, sometimes “shit happens.” Speaking of Forrest, sometimes the most straightforward explanations are often the best. Dying is just a part of life, as shown by this scene from the film Forrest Gump:[iii]
I agree with Forrest’s mother. We need to make our destiny by doing the best with what God gives us.
My wife and I recently returned home from attending the funeral of her brother, Richard. This time, the mortuary limited attendees to 60 persons, so there was room for Richard’s extended family. Over twenty years ago, Richard suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed. At the time, the doctors informed us that most stroke survivors like Richard die within ten years of their stroke. But Richard created his destiny, living over twice as long as expected. And he made the best of what God had left him with—by being a devoted father, a loving grandfather, a faithful companion—never complaining about the cruel hand life had dealt him.
Although COVID-19 was not a factor in Richard’s death, it left its mark. Of the 60 people who attended the funeral, 23 ultimately tested positive for the virus. Although several of the cases were severe (with one relative commenting that she had never felt sicker in her life), no one had to be hospitalized, and all have since recovered (or are recovering). But it was another sign that life is precious and sometimes shorter than we hope for.
Soon after returning from Richard’s funeral, I learned of Cheryl’s passing, a dear friend of mine. She had battled cancer for three years. A year and a half ago, we thought she had beat the dreaded disease, but it came back with a vengeance. I had lost touch with her recently, and now I grieve that I had not been that supportive friend she could have used in her last days. So, stay close to those you love; you never know when that last chance to give a hug (or elbow bump) and express your love might be.
Jeanne, Richard, and Cheryl were extraordinary examples to me. Regardless of our condition in life, we can always do something to love and help others. In particular, Richard’s quiet dignity during the last years of his life reminds me of this scene from The Theory of Everything,[iv] which chronicles the life of Stephen Hawking, who also spent the last years of his life with a debilitating illness:
Someday, probably much sooner than I hope or will be ready for, I will follow Jeanne, Richard, and Cheryl. The best thing about my death will be that it will also mark the end of my paying taxes. And when I die, I want to go like my father–in my sleep–not screaming like the other passengers in my car. But seriously, I have the same philosophy as my son, Jeff. I believe in life before death and don’t worry very much about life after death. If I can create a destiny by doing the best with what I have, my afterlife will take care of itself. And if there is no afterlife? Then I will still be proud of what I left behind.
[i] Patch Adams:
- Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Blue Wolf Productions, and Farrell/Minoff
- Director: Tom Shadyac
- Screenwriter: Steve Oedekerk (based on the book by Patch Adams and Maureen Mylander)
- Starring: Robin Williams, Daniel London, and Monica Potter
- Release date: December 27, 1998
[ii] P.S. I Love You:
- Production Company: Warner Bros.
- Director: Richard LaGravenese
- Screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese
- Starring: Hillary Swank, Gerard Butler, Harry Connick, Jr.
- Release date: December 21, 2007
[iii] Forrest Gump:
- Production Company: Paramount Pictures
- Director: Robert Zemeckis
- Screenwriter: Eric Roth (based on the novel by Winston Groom)
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, and Gary Sinise
- Release date: July 6, 1994
[iv] The Theory of Everything:
- Production Companies: Working Title Films, Dentsu Motion Pictures, and Fuji Television Network
- Director: James Marsh
- Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten (based on the book by Jane Hawking)
- Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, and Tom Prior
- Release date: November 26, 2014