Category Archives: Lessons from Death

A Rose for a Butterfly

This Friday, February 7, 2014, I have a medical appointment that will put me near the grave of someone I love very much. Her name is Laura A. VerDow Santelli. She died on February 20, 2010. Like the previous years, I will put a single red rose at her grave.

I know that she is not there, not really, only the shell of her body that her soul left behind, but it is my way of remembering her. I do this for my parents as well. I buy a bouquet of flowers and spread them on their graves. I could not do it last year as I did not travel to the state of my birth. I will this year. My parents names are Virginia and William.

David Eagleman in his book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, wrote “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”

Mom, Dad and Laura, your third death has not come for I have not forgotten you and I promise to speak your names.

I look forward to placing a rose on Laura’s grave. She was my Butterfly. She loved life and was full spirited and fun loving. I do miss her and love her very much. Remember those that have passed on and say their names. Remember them for that is how they stay in our hearts. Because all of us, like my Butterfly, will have to fly off someday leaving our bodies behind.

Taken Too Young

I would have entitled this ‘Taken Too Soon’, but as I am not the Lord of Time, it is not mine to say when is too soon. Last weekend, Theresa’s nephew passed away suddenly. He suffered a medical malady throughout his life. Although this malady restricted our culture’s expectations of this young man, he touched the lives of very many. During the viewing there were hundreds of people who paid respects to the family. There was a steady stream of visitors for four hours. His mother told Theresa that her son knew each one of them.

In this young man’s life, he made an impact on many individuals. He always greeted everyone with a smile and a big “Hi.” He lived in the moment. He loved movies and excelled at remembering the dialog. He loved live music. And he loved to dance (see a video of him below). In his short life, he taught those around him to accept that which cannot be changed and enjoy the moments as they come.

He died much too young. A few months ago, a young girl passed away from cancer. She passed much too young. I still do not understand why medical maladies afflict those so young. I never will.

These young people teach us that life is uncertain, that the end can come at any time. They teach us that we must appreciate the time that we have. That time is fleeting and that our life is precious. Our life should not be wasted on things that waste our time or does not help us grow. This is a lesson that that we all can appreciate. Thanks Matt.


Beyond Understanding

Last weekend, I attended a memorial service for a 7-year-old girl who lost her battle against cancer.  I will say right away that I do not understand why children have cancer or other dreadful maladies that take these precious souls away from us. I cannot imagine the loss to her family. Such an event cannot possibly leave a family unchanged.

As much as we do not like it, we can accept the cycle of life when someone dies at an advanced age, but to die so young seems so unreasonable. We know that people of every age die at the hands of accidents, negligence and the “free will” choices of others, but many medical maladies seem so far out of our control. Maybe someday we will find the answer that unlocks the secret to cancer and stop its runaway growth. I certainly hope so.

The pastor said that there is no explanation or reason that might comfort the family. I dug around my own thoughts looking for a reason. I thought about the fall of man at the beginning but even that didn’t satisfy my hunger for something understandable.

More than 30 years ago, Gary Mervis founded Camp Good Days and Special Times for his daughter, Teddi Mervis and 62 other children with cancer from Upstate New York. I am not directly familiar with this organization but I can easily imagine that this group not only brings fun and confidence to the kids but celebrates their undefeatable spirit. The founder not only poured out his love for his daughter and others like her, but allowed so many more to demonstrate their love as well.

In the newspaper after the memorial service was held, there was a comment about the little girl from her mother, I believe, that cancer was just a word. I can believe that, since children do not tend to dwell on their problems but look for the next moment of magic.

Death, of course, is a part of life. For some, it is the end. For others, it is a new beginning to something greater – a mere transition from here to the hereafter. I am not sure that death is much of a barrier for God. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after four days. (John 11) Jesus commanded his apostles to raise the dead. (Matt 8:10) Peter raised Tabitha from the dead. (Acts 9:36-43) Paul raised Eutychus from the dead (Acts 20:7-12). Jesus himself was resurrected and a resurrection was promised to all those who believe. For many of us, this is a comforting thought but those of us left behind miss our loved one’s presence. Their memories in our minds and hearts keep them alive for us here, even as they live on in paradise.

I cannot imagine the intense feeling of losing a child. I can only sympathize with those who have lost children for any reason. Early childhood passing was common one hundred fifty years ago, but in our modern world of medicine and sanitation, it defies my sensibilities. My thoughts and prayers not only go out to the family effected last weekend but to all those families suffering with cancer or other medical maladies.  I suppose that children living with and dying of cancer is simply beyond my understanding.


Born to Earth, Born to Eternity

I have been away from the blog for the past three weeks. I have been busy in and out of the hospital with Theresa and her father. Fortunately, Theresa is getting better. Unfortunately, Theresa’s father passed away on the 18th. He was 96 years old. In his life, he touched many lives. He worked as a lawyer and served on planning boards throughout the area. Theresa is one of eight. He worked hard to support his large family.

I could tell the lasting impact he had on his children. Not only was he surrounded by his children in his final days, but was visited numerous times each week for many years prior. He had a long, wonderful life on earth, and I have no doubt that he has begun his new life in the eternal as well. He will also continue to live here in the hearts and minds of those who loved and knew him.

Religions, or the lack of, have strived to explain or answer the question as to what happens after death.  Some believe that there is nothing after death – we’re here and then we die and that is the end of the story. Some believe in the journey of the soul to be transferred into the body of a newborn. Others believe that the soul is reborn into any creation, not necessarily human. Others believe that souls spend eternity in Heaven or Hell. Often people believe a combination of these, not really sure what to believe.

I believe that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Jesus died for all of us. There are those who defiantly resist God, and they will be dealt with as God sees fit. It is not my place to judge.

Funerals are for the living. They are a ceremony, not only to celebrate the life of the one is no longer alive on earth, but to support the family and say our goodbyes. It is part of the grieving process. Theresa’s father’s funeral was a positive one. I enjoyed listening to the memories and stories. Even though there were lots of tears and crying, it was wonderful to learn how he had touched the lives of so many people.

I was in the Army and so was Theresa’s father. He had military honors at the graveyard. A musician played taps on a very soulful bugle. It brought a tear to my eye. The carefully folded flag was presented to Theresa’s oldest sister.

Charles Spurgeon said, “When the time comes for you to die, you need not be afraid, because death cannot separate you from God’s love.”  I know for sure, that even in death, Theresa’s father will never be separated from the love of his family and friends.


The Dash Song

   I was shown a video called “The Dash.” It was wonderful. It said all the things that I wish to espouse to the world. While looking for it on youtube, I found the poem set to music. I hope that you like it.

The Dash – by Linda Ellis – Author, Speaker and Poet

The Dash Song is sung by Kirk Dearman


A Walk in a Cemetery

Before I moved to Holley, NY, I walked my dog in open fields that lay near my home. I do not have such fields available to me in Holley but there is a forest behind a nearby cemetery. I actually find it quite interesting to walk amongst the headstones on the way to the forest floor. The cemetery has been around quite a long time with stones declaring dates into the early 1800s.

The information provided by the headstones varies widely, with some just holding a name and age. Other stones list family members and the departed’s relationship to others. Very few of the stones mention occupation except that there is a section dedicated to those who have fallen in battle. I am not surprised that the most important aspect of a persons life is their relationship to others.

I read some of the headstones and think: what were they like; what did they do; who’s life did they touch. The stones report ages from a few days to nearly a hundred years. Death is indiscriminate. Death is no respecter of lineage, wealth or position. Scanning the headstones, I am reminded that life is so precious. Every one of those stones represent one or more persons. Each of those persons lived a life, no matter how short or long, that touched others. Their life is contained in the dash between the dates. However, the stones that record the death of a child make me wonder why they had died. Was a simple childhood disease that is now cured by simple vaccinations responsible for their early demise? Was it an accident that ended their short, sweet life?

Regardless of the age stated on the stone, I view their lives on this earth as short ones. I myself have been alive for more than five decades, and they passed so quickly. In the older part of the graveyard, the residents have been lying there much longer than they were ever alive. Some have been in the cemetery so long that the carvings in the soapstone wore away.

I like reading the older names: Hattie, Cedric, Lucretia, Judson, and Louisa come to mind. I also remember seeing Prudence and my all time favorite thus far; Silence.

We are here but a short time. Our names and dates may be etched in stone for centuries to come, or maybe not. It is the life we live, the lives we touch, the people we love that is important, now and tomorrow.

Each day is precious. We cannot reclaim the past. Once it has gone by, we cannot go back. We need to make each day count. Live life well. Let those you love know that you love them. Impact the world by your interactions with each individual. Change the world one person at a time.

The cemetery is a quiet place where stories remain untold. I will walk my dog through the grounds to the forest behind. I am sure the residents do not mind. I hope that this finds you well. I hope that you are fit and healthy. I hope that you will make that dash mean something. Take care.


Lessons from Death – Conclusion?

If you missed Part One you can find it here Lessons from Death – Part One

   Unlike my mother’s sudden departure where I had difficulty accepting her death, I had let go of my father.  I was at peace with his passing.  I do miss him of course.  I also miss my mother.

   Some families truly come together during funerals.  There is an urge to reconnect to family in the view of the loss.  It represents changes in relationships and family dynamics.  Funerals can remind us of our own inevitable fate and the preciousness of those left alive.  For most of us, the death of someone close causes us to reflect on their lives as well as our own.  Our minds sort through the memories and amplify the attached emotions.  We remember the good in them.  The recollections give us comfort.  Missing my parents is a reminder of how much they meant to me. 

   Life is precious and fragile.  Life can begin and end in moments.  Death is not just for the aged.  Accidents, violence, and disease can take us from the world at any age.  Life IS a precious thing.  Those we love are precious, precious enough to warrant our time and presence.  The little things that really don’t matter fill our lives until we are too busy for anyone, including ourselves.  Watching life slowly losing its grip on my father made many things seem very unimportant.  This is a lesson I am still learning.  It takes practice.  It takes time.  Each of us is allotted just 24 hours each day.  Decide who and what are important and then pay attention.

   I watched my father seek moments that were filled with life, while his own was slipping away.  Add to the lives of those you care about.  Take time to let people know you care.  Life is to be shared; live it.  Life is finite; share it now.  Life is precious; appreciate it.  What is most important is that we live life so that we are fulfilled so that we can help others live until they just can’t live anymore.

   Take care, stay well, and be safe.


Lessons from Death – Part Five

If you missed Part One you can find it here Lessons from Death – Part One

   The older of my sisters (they are both younger than me) drove to Upstate NY to be with her father. My younger sister refused to come, her pain and anger kept her from her father’s side.

   On my father’s last day among us, he seemed to perk up just a bit. He held my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “Don’t worry, Harry, I’m going to be all right.” I was so relieved. He made it through another storm. He laid back and smiled. He died just a few hours later in my arms.

   Just minutes before his death, my sister had gone to my home to rest from her long trip. After saying “I love you, Dad; I’ll miss you,” into his ear as he passed. I felt his body collapse. I thought about my older sister. I ran to the lobby and frantically called her on my cell phone. I was so afraid she would be upset. I was wrong. She WAS upset that he passed but not upset that she wasn’t there. She told me that Dad knew she wouldn’t want to watch him die so he waited until she left. I am not sure if that was true but I accepted it as so.

   The nurses did some quick paperwork. They called a grief counselor for me. We hugged and cried. I went to the hospital chapel, still in tears, and prayed. God answered, “Don’t worry, Harry, he’s going to be all right.” I let go of my selfish desire to keep my father here on earth and gladly gave him over to my God. I hope God puts him in a garden. He was always happy in a garden.

Follow this link to Lessons from Death – Conclusion?


Lessons from Death – Part Four

If you missed Part One you can find it here Lessons from Death – Part One

   Just before my father’s final ambulance ride, I woke up and made my way to the kitchen as I did every morning. I was startled to find my father, folded against his bed face down. I immediately went to him, dropping to my knees. I shook him. He responded with a weak moan. I thanked God he was alive. How long had he been like that? Minutes? Hours? I had no idea. I called 9-1-1. They asked how long he had been down. I could only answer that I didn’t know.

   Within a few hours, my father was alert. By that time, he was getting IV fluids and a blood transfusion. He kept asking me what had happened. I had no answers for him. He could not recollect anything that had happened. As far as he knew, he just woke up in the hospital.

   He was admitted to the hospital for observation. This began his final week among us. My father actually seemed to be doing well. Phew! We thought, another crisis over. It seemed as though we had just breathed a sigh of relief when my father developed a high fever. The doctors and nurses worked hard to control his raging infection. His immune system had already been compromised. He just couldn’t fight it.

   A health proxy, completed much earlier, stated his wishes against feeding tubes and artificial ventilation in favor of a natural passing. A “do not resuscitate” order was already in place. I tell you this because he refused to eat. I agonized between letting him refuse nutrition or forcing him to eat. I tried to feed him fortified pudding but he begged me to stop. I felt helpless. He told me, “Harry, I just can’t do this anymore.” Now, I really felt helpless.

   His doctor held a conference with my girlfriend, my sons, and me. He explained that all they were doing was not affecting the outcome. I made the very difficult decision to honor my father’s wishes and allow him a natural death. He would be made as comfortable as possible until the end. I was letting him go. I desired to and hated to. The anguish of it all stunned me. I would learn later that my youngest sister considered my decision “the killing of her father.” She no longer talks to me.

   The next contribution to this series describes the final letting go and my initial misunderstanding of my father’s last words to me.

Follow this link to Lessons from Death – Part Five


Lessons from Death – Part Three

If you missed Part One you can find it here Lessons from Death – Part One

   The sudden request from my father to move in with us caught me off guard. He was to be released from the rehabilitation center two days after he asked to live with me. My sister packed some of his things. She put together his finances so that I could take those with me. He had only been to Upstate NY once before. He always thought it was too far to drive. Somehow, it was much closer for me to drive to Maryland with my car packed with luggage, wife, and kids. In his mind, I’m sure I did live closer to him than he did to me.

   He enjoyed the trip. I believe he saw it as a new adventure. He seemed more energetic and excited as we drew near to our destination. After an eight-hour ride, we arrived at my home, a home my father had never seen before. He seemed pleased with his new surroundings. The very next day he was planning to turn my back yard into a garden. I had to explain to him that the park that I live in had certain restrictions concerning gardens. I told him that I would think of something.

   My father loved western shows and movies. Luckily, our cable company had a channel dedicated to such a genre. The livingroom TV was set to that station for him. He never did get the hang of the remote. I went to the library and signed out large print books for him to read. I spent most of my time that week preparing our livingroom to be a proper place for my father to stay. He had much more energy than I had expected. His spirits were greatly lifted. He begged to help with the cooking. I was very pleased to witness what I thought was a recovery. I assembled a team of doctors for his care.

   A newsletter was designed and published so that it could be sent to his friends (they weren’t all dead afterall) and family so everyone could be informed as to his progress. A new edition of the newsletter went out every two or three weeks. I purchased an amplified phone so that loved ones could call. He was very hard of hearing and did not have much luck with those “fangled” hearing aids.

   He did surprisingly well until Spring, his favorite time of year. That is when the planting begins. He had supported himself with a cane, but the cane no longer proved sufficient. We borrowed a wheelchair for him. He was so disappointed. He wanted to be in the garden, any garden. My neighbor told me about square foot gardening as an alternative. It was a great idea. Then God improved on the idea – He inspired me to think garden tables! Take the square foot garden idea and elevate it to a level that would accept a wheelchair. My father was so happy. He brightened up again. He was just like a child with a brand new toy.

   He didn’t see much of the harvest from those tables. He grew ever tired and more ill shortly after working on the garden tables. I realize now that his excitement and energy was much like a bulb that burns ever brighter before going dim. His illness finally caught up with him. Soon he would have his last ride in an ambulance.

   Doing all this for my Dad was a wonderful task and a loving struggle. The most profound lesson I learned from this is that you don’t help people die, you help them live until they just can’t live any more.

   The next contribution will explore his last days and the incredible preciousness of life and letting go. Until next time, take care, stay well and be safe.

Follow this link to Lessons from Death – Part Four