Friday, September 18, 2009

A Letter For My Loved Ones

Death at age 84 can be peaceful and expected or sudden and tragic. Mom's was the latter. She was in the ICU after having an abdominal aortic aneurysm repaired, a pretty major operation in this age group (many of these are now handled by much less invasive techniques). My 87 year old Dad received the call from the hospital. Mom had suffered a cardiac arrest and CPR was ineffective.

When the call was relayed to me I had a whole mix of emotions: the sadness that I wasn't there with her; wondering if she suffered; concerned that her surgeon may not have been the best; and grief for Dad.

I flew back to Pennsylvania for the funeral. The memorial service was given in the beautiful Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The Swedenborgian service was upbeat but didn't deny the sense of loss we all felt. Someone said to me, "We Swedenborgians are among those who cry tears of joy at weddings and laugh though our sadness at funerals as we picture our loved one awakening in the next life."

The burial was a simple affair in the old Bryn Athyn graveyard and a nephew offered to hand carve a headstone. There was respect for the natural body, but nothing elaborate thus accenting the belief that one is very much alive in their much more perfect and youthful spiritual body in the afterlife. The burial site, near the Pennypack Creek where deer roamed, often looked more like a path through the woods than a graveyard.

Dad seemed like he was in a daze. He looked lost and plans needed to be rapidly made for extra care. The hardest thing was going through all of Mom's old papers. We knew she had typed up a family history, sketched out genealogy trees, and collected volumes of papers from all us kids including report cards going back through first grade.

But then we found the letter. It was a sealed envelope with no stamp, which was titled, "In case anything happens to me." We were all so stunned to have this posthumous letter that it took awhile to gather together, sit down, and read it. Basically it was a love letter to Dad, but there we're affectionate references to all of us and our spouses. It felt like Mom talking to us, urging us to love one another, not to chase after worldly possessions, and to be useful human beings. She even chastised herself for nagging us to do more. There was no self praise, no accusations, no regrets - only love.

Such a letter is now called an "Ethical Will." This is a powerful way to leave a positive legacy of your thoughts and values. I encourage patients to consider reading about ethical wills when doing end of life planning so that more of us can receive a love letter from beyond like the one Mom left.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. What a beautiful family and a wonderful mother. God bless her. Makes me appreciate my own who is still young and well. I saw your blog through your posting at the NY times Well column. Thanks for listing it. More power and God bless.
    MayJennifer Amolat, MD