By Norris Burkes Jan 24, 2021
It’s a harried morning in my hospice office as I prepare for my daily home visits. I organize papers, make phone calls and update patient charting notes.
I print patient “face sheets” that give me their home address, family names and diagnosis. Through phone calls, I’ve scheduled three home visits and I’m almost ready to set up my GPS.
Before standing, I take a second glance at the info sheets and take note of the patient’s date of birth.
It’s here I will often pause to consider the unthinkable. Is this patient too young to die?
I don’t know what “too young” is, but I usually know it when I see it. For instance, I knew the baby I visited a few years back was too young to die. I knew the 48-year-old father of four I saw last year was too young to die.
But who am I to make that judgment? Like you perhaps, I see anyone younger than me too young to die.
I lean back in my chair and take a reflective breath. I say a prayer asking that I become a source of hope and a reflection of God’s presence. Amen.
I drive to my first visit knowing that the 50-year-old is definitely too young to die.
I park at his home as I imagine that, like many patients his age, he’ll be mourning the loss of his potential happiness.
His face sheet says he has school-age children, so I know he’ll likely be pleading with God: “I’ve got so much more to do. I want to see my son graduate from high school. I want to walk my daughter down the wedding aisle.”
The visit goes as expected.
I return to my car to read the next face sheet of a 103-year-old woman. As a centenarian, she introduces the opposite end of the issue. “Am I too old to live?”
“It’s not fair” she tells me. “I want to die now. I have no purpose left in my life. I can’t even enjoy ice cream,” she adds with a smile. But her smile doesn’t cover the fact that she’s mourning a loss of significance.
Nevertheless, her remarks give us a shared chuckle before I return to my car.
“Has she lived long enough?” I wonder.
Will her death seem tragic to those who love her? Or will her family know that strange combination of grief and relief? They will be sad to see her go, but grateful she has no more pain.
After a quick lunch stop, I drive to see my final patient. At 92, Theresa is not too young to die. (Not her real name.)
We spend the afternoon talking about her travels, the business she started with her husband and the children she bore.
She asks me what heaven is like, which gives her a chance to talk about the grief she still carries for a lost child.
But through it all, I hear gratitude. She knows she’s been privileged to have what she’s had. She’s happy that she’s had a chance to live. She tells me she’s known all along that it would come to an end someday.
As I drive back to the office to complete my charting, I consider how COVID has us all thinking about dying. Most of us pray that we can just live until that “ripe old age” – whatever that is.
But Theresa has given me insight on how we might know the right time to die. The perfect time to die. And it’s not connected to a number.
I call it the age of gratitude.
It’s the age when you finally see that you’ve had fullness in your life. You know you’ve lived some dreams and you are thoroughly grateful.
It occurs to me that we really can’t control when we die, so I hope whenever my end comes, I can be like Theresa. I hope to say that I’m grateful for the years I’ve had and not count the moments I’ve lost.
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