Aww, Grampa...'ll outlive all of us!

Many of us have escaped into this type of jocular dismissal when someone we love says, “This will probably be my last… (birthday, Christmas, anniversary).” But what is it we are really saying with a statement like, “Aww, you’ll outlive all of us!” The feeling underlying the comment may be, “I don’t like the thought of your being gone” or “I love you. I don’t want to let you go.” But the deeper message being communicated is clear: “Don’t Talk about Dying.”

A considerable amount of media attention lately turned to the ethics of sharing one’s illness experiences via social media. The focus was primarily on a Connecticut woman, Lisa Adams, with stage four metastatic breast cancer, who has been sharing her experiences via a blog and twitter for many years. Journalists Emma Keller and her husband Bill Keller attacked Lisa Adams in opinion pieces in The Guardian and The New York Times, respectively, for being unethical in her use of social media to reveal the intimate details of her disease and, on a more personal level, berated her for how she has handled what they assume to be the end of her life. Emma Keller’s article was removed after getting considerable flack. But the public discussion continues. Click here for more articles on the topic.

I was appalled at the viciousness and harsh judgment directed toward Lisa Adams. But those particular issues are not my main focus today. The point I wish to make is that, in my opinion, we could all learn to be more willing and open in our conversations about death and dying. When someone we love talks realistically about nearing the end of life, we could encourage them to talk more, rather than putting a lid on the conversation with a dismissive phrase. At the very least, what is true for them deserves acknowledgement and validation.

Open the door

It is a natural human need to talk about the issues that occupy our minds and hearts. A life changing event, whether already experienced or anticipated, needs to be processed in our minds to fit it into our existing framework. Talking about it could help clarify the experience, bring light onto a different perspective, or help diffuse tension and anxiety about the event. Group therapy and lay support groups have proven effective for people with similar traumatic experiences as well as for people needing support in combating various addictions. “Talking about it” has proven its worth.

I have been walking this road with my, now, ninety-five year old mother. It has taken several years and many tentative, and progressively more open, talks for me to find my comfort. I have finally come to a place where I can say, “If this is going to be your last birthday, we’d better make it a good one!”

My mother is no longer having many good days, and when she tells me that she hopes to leave this world before long, I can now tell her, “If I felt the way you do most of the time, I would want to get out of here, too!” This is not an easy place to get to. Even though we know the truth of it, part of us shrinks away, as if talking about death will make it happen. But being willing to leave the door open to conversations about the end of life opens the possibility of a deeper, more personally intimate relationship.

Do you know how the people you love feel about dying? Do you know what they believe about the afterlife, or if they even believe one exists? What are their greatest fears and their greatest joys? Death is probably the greatest mystery of our human experience. Sharing deep thoughts and feelings about death can bring us closer to one another and help us to embrace the time we do have, rather than spend it pretending that time is not limited.

I am thankful to the people willing to share their terminal conditions and end-of-life insights. I believe these open-hearted people help to expand our cultural awareness and our willingness to view and treat death and dying as a universal bond we all share. The next time someone in your life says, “I don’t think I’ll make another year,” can you find it in yourself to open that door and say, “You know, I’ve wondered how it feels to be facing that time in life. What is it like?”

Time is a precious gift. Treasure it. Spend it wisely. Fill it with joy and love.

Related: “The Cloud That Doesn’t Go Away” by Kirsten Kaae, on

Kirsten Kaae, RN, BSN, LPC, M. Ed. has been serving the needs of the terminally ill and their families since 1987 when she started her career as a hospice nurse. Ms. Kaae has pursued extensive post graduate work in child and family therapy and rehabilitation. She holds dual licensures as a registered nurse and as a licensed professional counselor. She is a regular guest lecturer at Texas Woman’s University and University of North Texas, and is frequently called on to speak on a variety of topics relating to her fields of expertise. In 2008, Kirsten was the recipient of the Oncology Nursing Society Foundation’s Pat McCue Palliative Care Nursing Career Development Award. For more information and resources, go to Kirsten Kaae’s website: It’s About TIME: Straight Talk About Aging and End of Life at

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