I used to think that being “death ready” meant making sure the dishes were cleaned and put away, making my bed and taking the trash out before I went away on vacation. If the house looked good, I thought, I would not mind if I died.
It sounds kind of silly, but that was a part of my pre-vacation check list—getting “death ready.”
When my friend Jim had a seizure which led to a diagnosis of a deadly brain cancer, the term “death ready” took on new meaning. Little did he, or I, care that his bed was made, the dishes put away or the trash taken out. In one moment, his whole life changed and death moved from the distant horizon to the front door.
Was he ready? No, not by a long shot.
Over the nine months of his illness, I watched Jim go through the process of getting ready to die, and I had time to ponder what it meant to be ready for death.
Some aspects were purely practical. Fortunately, we had done advanced directives fifteen years earlier, and I was the person who had authority to make health care decisions for him. I was also the executor of his will and knew where he kept his legal documents. Having these matters settled made a huge difference when Jim got sick so suddenly, and I was deeply grateful that we had them in order.
But most of Jim’s getting ready for death dealt not with the legal things but rather those things that are deeply personal. Once he had recovered from surgery and treatment and understood that he would not live much longer, he said, “I want to live until I die.” He did not want to live or die in the hospital, and I promised to fulfil his wish.
Once he was completely convinced that I would not allow him to be re-hospitalized, he said, “Now I can live.” After that, he spent his days prayerfully reviewing his life. He revisited every important occasion and relationship, continually asking if he was at peace or if there were unresolved issues.
Sometimes he wanted to talk about someone or something from his past; sometimes he wrote in his journal. He recalled friends and events from school—elementary through seminary—and derived great pleasure from his good memories. His two closest friends, one from high school and the other from seminary, came to visit and each visit was a walk down memory lane.
Every day, every memory, brought deeper peace. And then, about six months after he was diagnosed, a family situation arose for which there seemed to be no resolution. This relative would not, or possibly could not, join in our journey. Even after repeated requests, he refused to visit. No amount of pleading could get him to change his mind.
Suddenly, I understood the concept of purgatory—some things just cannot get resolved in this life and we carry them with us when we pass over into the next. This relative would be Jim’s. He then began to work on changing his expectations of this relative and letting go of the hurt. Over time, his acceptance of the situation grew, but it was never fully resolved for him.
When death came, Jim was truly “death-ready,” and his readiness had little to do with anything physical. During the nine months of his illness, he had moved through the attachments of this life, letting go of one after another, until he was left face to face with his God.
Since Jim died, I have done my own review of my life and relationships. I don’t have the sense of urgency that he had, but I see the wisdom in being as ready as possible—just in case death comes unexpectedly. In some situations, I have reached out to make amends; in others, I have let go and moved on.
What I have not done since Jim died, though, is to get my documents in order. My will still names him as the executor and my advanced directive is out of date. Remembering how grateful I was that his documents were in order when Jim got sick, one of my resolutions for the New Year is to update my will and advanced directive.
Another resolution is to continue the process of looking at my relationships and life events to see where I need to apologize or to change my expectations or let go of hurts.
I learned from watching Jim that being truly “death ready” brings freedom, the freedom to live fully until I die.
Madeline Bialecki grew up in Detroit and recently returned after living in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years. She began writing about her spiritual journey and faith life after the death of her best friend in 2012. She likes to read, knit, bake and garden. She shares her spiritual journey here.