How to Go Gently… or More Gently

One of my recent joys has been working with Dr. Glen E. Miller, a medical doctor in Goshen, Indiana, to edit a book we finally settled on calling Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well: A Doctor Explains How to Make Death a Natural Part of Life.

Over the last months of her life, she reported her status each week to her large group of friends. “I am not dying from cancer, but living with cancer.”

Dr. Miller has almost died three times, including a full-fledged heart attack when he was on a podium speaking. His wife was there—what a scare! He now lives with a pacemaker, but as a doctor who has worked with scores of dying patients and their families, he knows the difference between a good death (according to the thoughts of many people) versus a difficult, miserable, painful, and frustrating journey as a loved one struggles and definitely does not “go gentle into that good night” as poet Dylan Thomas once wrote.

Glen has also talked with many spiritual leaders about their thoughts on the relationship of spirituality, death, and dying. He spent an extended period of time at a Benedictine abbey to learn from monks about dying well. He feels strongly that too many people are not as prepared as they should be for their final passage.

With his permission, I’m excerpting one story from the book which particularly touched me, because the woman had been a long-distance colleague of mine as a fellow writer. Linea was seventy-three years old when she was diagnosed with advanced cancer that had already spread to her liver, pancreas, and lungs. As a seminary graduate, she herself had counseled many people in their times of stress, served as a church elder, teacher, and with a team of persons who visited women in jail. Here is Glen’s summary of her journey with cancer

“At the time of diagnosis, her doctors presented three options: to do nothing, to pursue aggressive chemotherapy, or to enter a medical research program. Linea asked questions regarding the chances of improvement, prolongation of life, and sickness induced by the treatment. She opted for the research program after learning that the chemotherapy would cause significant sickness with no real chance of improvement in the cancer. [It] required repeated follow-up studies including blood tests and scans. The doctors estimated that her life expectancy was about six months.

“Linea and her husband, Lenny, had worked on their advance directives two years earlier after the tragic accidental death of their son-in-law. They discussed their directives with their children well before the diagnosis of cancer and with repeat discussions annually. Copies of the advance directives were sent to the doctors, hospital, pastor, and their children.

“She announced to her church community and other friends that she had cancer. This open communication allowed for expressions of concern. Over the last months of her life, she reported her status each week to her large group of friends. ‘I am not dying from cancer, but living with cancer.’

“While Linea had long accepted that death was inevitable, when her death became imminent, she made plans for her funeral, memorial service, and cremation. She actively downsized her possessions, giving books and mementos to family and friends. Jewelry and dishes were apportioned out to specific people who would have a special connection or appreciation for that item. Leftover clothing was given to a thrift store.

“Linea entered the hospice program with home visits from hospice nurses twice weekly. Eventually, her care required that she be hospitalized. She remained alert and oriented. While in the hospital she was anointed in the Mennonite tradition for ‘strength and peace in her last days.’ As her organs began to fail and she became more jaundiced, her family and close friends came and in turn each one said goodbye with hugs and kisses.

“Linea came to her time of trial having settled her thoughts about life and the inevitability of death. She had run the race and finished the course, and had done it all with patience for the progressive limitations. She exhibited grace in her continued concern for others with an unfailing experience of a loving God.

“Linea’s story illustrates the ‘opportunity’ that came after her diagnosis of cancer to plan for an orderly exit from this life. It all started with her acceptance of death as a reality, which allowed her to devote time to the things that had always mattered to her. When she said, ‘I am not dying from cancer but living with cancer,’ she was saying that she was not defined by her disease—she was much more than her cancer.”

Most of us do not choose our path out of this world, Linea accepted a path set before her with grace and tears, fighting a good fight and then arriving at a measure of acceptance. May we learn from those who have gone before us.

Write for the free book End of Life: Helping with Comfort and Care, by the National Institute on Aging. I can also send more information on Dr. Miller’s book, Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well: A Doctor Explains How to Make Death a Natural Part of Life by email or snail mail. Just write to or to Another Way, 1251 Virginia Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA, 22802. Visit Dr. Miller’s website for his book as well as blog posts from Dr. Miller and Jep Hostetler on finding joy in living,

Posted 3/20/2014 7:00:00 AM

What do you think?

Post a comment or read others’ thoughts on this article in the Online Conversation, or.