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Sexton: Living with dying


I recently had a friend leave this life. From her diagnosis until shortly before her death I truly believed if anyone could beat cancer it would be her. She was one of the strongest minded people I knew. She had that force of will that made things happen. Telling her she couldn’t do something was just the catalyst she needed to make sure it did.

Looking back on our time together post-diagnosis, I realize I never really accepted death as a possibility. She would beat this and I had to be sure she knew this so I shut down any talk about negative outcomes.

I was so wrong.

I thought I had learned from Tommy’s journey into death that you had to be willing to discuss it. You don’t have to be a negative Nellie but don’t shower them with positivity either. Sometimes they just want you to listen to what they are feeling, so shut up and follow their lead. Sick people don’t always want your smiley-faced enthusiasm for their recovery. I was down this road over 20 years ago when Tommy died. I must be a slow learner with some life lessons.

It wasn’t until the last time I saw her that she finally got through to me that she wasn’t surviving this. She described herself as lucky because she got to die. She knew the loved ones left behind suffer the most. Because of my inability to accept her mortality I will always feel I never really said goodbye. I had brushed aside her attempts to verbalize this possibility with my Pollyanna outlook. I feel now that she accepted my blind optimism because she realized that was what I seemed to need, I didn’t consider what she might need.

Looking back I realize I learned so much from my friend’s experience. It made me look more closely at my life and the importance of turning mountains back into molehills and recognizing the difference between the two. I need to try to live my life with gratitude, which is not always easy. But let’s face it: being grateful is essential for joy. My friend believed in living life and living it well. She packed a lot into her time here and she had no regrets in that regard. She seemed larger than life, which is probably why it’s hard to imagine life without her.

We have to get comfortable talking about death because it’s unavoidable; my brother always refers to death as the price of admission. We need to be willing to have the conversation about end of life choices and how we would like to depart this world for the next great adventure. That is how my friend saw it. What constitutes quality of life and especially quality of death differs for all of us.

Now that our legislators are battling with the question of physician-assisted suicide, you can see the battle lines being drawn. One couple I know has polar opposite opinions on what would be their choice. She feels she would never be able to take her own life because of her beliefs and he does not want living just for quantity’s sake. They respect each other’s positions and can talk about it. That is what I see as most needed in this debate, respect for and acceptance of others’ choices. The choice is an individual one and nobody should be allowed to make it for someone else. We should have the right to live as you are or die as you wish.

I am now firmly ensconced on the other side of middle age where family and friends are dying with more frequency. It’s sometimes hard not to look around and wonder who’s next? I don’t dwell on it, but just accept the new reality of my age and the importance of family and friends. I’m grateful for my life even with its knocks and dents. Nobody’s life will ever be perfect, but it should be well lived in.

Dr. Marina Sexton lives in Norris Point and is a member of The Western Star's Community Editorial Board.

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