The deathbed is a place that is both inevitable and so highly avoided, especially in American culture.
But I believe the deathbed holds a space to bring love into our lives in greater measure if we are brave enough to be vulnerable and open to the possibilities of its bittersweetness.
As a communication expert and Associate Professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who has worked with dying patients and their families for over a decade, I see avoidance of the deathbed time and time again. My entire career has been devoted to helping people accept terminal diagnoses so that they can find meaning in their remaining days, weeks, and months of life.
And now, as my father-in-law is slowly dying of a progressive illness and nearing the end of his life, I am forced to apply my lessons learned to my own life.
Through my work, I’ve learned the natural reflex to death is avoidance. We run away from death ─of our spouses, our parents, our friends. We certainly run away from it for ourselves.
Understandably, I think we run away because the deathbed is full of grief and sorrow. But I also think we run away because we overlook the power of the deathbed to contain an overwhelming amount of love and grace.
When we meet the deathbed with vulnerability, it can be a powerful place of connection and meaning making. In short, approaching the deathbed of our loved ones, and of ourselves ultimately, with courage is a critical but overlooked part of what it means to live a life well.
To be clear, the deathbed is firmly rooted in sorrow and grief. As C.S. Lewis said, “The death of a beloved is an amputation.” A part of us is cut off, which leaves a space of grief and mourning in its wake. And certainly, not all relationships are worth mourning.
What I am talking about is the actual physical space of the deathbed for those who matter to us ─ the place where dying begins but life has not yet ended. That is the place that holds the power to transform us and our relationships forever. In that place, we can usher in a lifetime of love or reconcile a lifetime of pain through grace and forgiveness. But it requires the courage to be vulnerable. To be honest. To say how we really feel.
Brené Brown, an expert on vulnerability, put it so aptly in her book Daring Greatly: “Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations.”
There are no harder conversations to have in this world than being honest at the deathbed.
It is a profoundly challenging conversation to have where you say how you feel to someone who is dying in a way that acknowledges their approaching death. But so often, I see people avoid the deathbed so emphatically that they miss the opportunities it provides. On the deathbed, I have witnessed broken relationship reconciled, long-needed apologies and forgiveness and grace emerge. I have seen people express a lifetime of love and joy they feel towards someone, which creates this lasting unexplainable peace and connection with that person, even after they’re gone.
In both cases, the deathbed can provide a needed sense of closure.
While I have seen many benefits of the deathbed, I have also seen immense and overwhelming regret for failing to say goodbye. And so, I want everyone to know the transformative power of being vulnerable at the deathbed, for both the dying and those losing them.
I am currently facing my own struggle to be vulnerable. Each time I visit my father-in-law who is nearing the end of his life, I see less and less of who he was. And at the same time, my heart feels more and more compelled to whisper into his ear, “I love you. Thank you for loving me.” By being forced to face the reality that he is dying, I have the opportunity to express all the things he has meant to me in this lifetime.
But it isn’t easy. It’s heartbreaking. In some ways, his illness is forcing me to accept that reality. One I might push back on or ignore if he was better or seemed more physically well.
As we slipped into my father in law’s room during a recent visit, my children burst forth with exclamations of, “Grandpa, we love you!” My 2-year-old son hands him his treasured and newly acquired stuffy: “Here grandpa, here.” My father-in-law strokes it slowly; it brings a calmness to him. Although it’s getting harder to communicate with him these days, tiny tears well up in his eyes as my kids shout, “We love you!”
He hears them. He feels their love.
I sometimes think deathbeds are only needed for adults. Most children have such a lavish and unhindered expression of love, and I’m curious where that goes as we age. I think I know where it goes – life toughens us up and teaches us lessons that don’t really help us on the deathbed like “don’t ever be vulnerable” or “don’t share your true feelings.”
There is much to be learned from my children. What is so amazing is they’re too young to really understand fully that he’s dying, and yet they shower him with unhindered love and affection. We could all learn to do a lot more of that in our lives. But there is also so much to learn from my father-in-law. I think he knows he’s dying. And he seems to be choosing the path of vulnerability, which allows him to lap up every ounce of love spoken towards him. I admire his courage.
It’s as if a lifetime accumulation of love, struggle, joy, pain, and sorrow mount up on the deathbed. It’s all there to confront. But due to the impending finality of death, the deathbed offers up grace and love in a way I have yet to see elsewhere in life. It’s where we can come forward to say, “You mattered. You still matter. I love you.” Or even harder but perhaps more profound: “I forgive you” and “will you forgive me?”
This vulnerability both expands and breaks your heart, but I truly believe it’s worth it.
As I sit next to his bed, I see the wall of pictures of his children and grandchildren. And I am overcome, in a strange and unexpected way. Tears well up in my eyes, and I find they are bittersweet tears. In that moment, I am so immensely full of love and gratitude for his life but overwhelmed with grief that it may soon end.
I am amazed that he brought all these people into this world in some form or another. Not solely or alone, but certainly in part. I know he, like all of us, has made many mistakes in trying to love and yet, he did love. And I feel that love. And as I see him nearing his death, I see an opportunity to reflect on what love means in my own life and to express to him the love I have for him and will always carry with me.
Funnily enough, the more I express my love towards him, the more I’m compelled to share it with the many people I love in my life. The deathbed has a way of reminding us that time is short, so why not choose love?
I think this vulnerability – on his part as the one dying and ours of the loved ones having to say goodbye – is the only way to make the deathbed matter.