It wasn’t bad"


(1/8/2006)

by Frances Edstrom

I'm sure it struck you, too. After the horrible mine accident in West Virginia, marked by anger and bitterness over the incorrect announcement that the miners had been found alive, which then had to be replaced with the news of their deaths, came a calming and poignant message from "the other side."

One of the miners, a Martin Toler Jr., scribbled a note to his family as he knew he was dying. It said, "Tell all I see them on the other side. I love you. It wasn't bad just went to sleep." And he signed it "JR."

Death holds a horrible fascination for us all. What used to be an accepted part of the life experience has in the last few generations become mysterious, frightening. Only recently has there been a movement "” Hospice "” to bring the dying home to pass away in a family setting, to once again accept death as a part of the life cycle.

I am reading a book on end-of-life issues in which the authors point out that we used to die younger and more quickly "” of infections, before penicillin, and of diseases for which we now have vaccines. Now, often death from disease is not quick, but prolonged by medical advancements. Consequently, we tend to be less accepting of death, and more willing to try any and all measures to be cured, leading inevitably to death in an institutional setting.

With death removed from our life experience, we are paradoxically more afraid and puzzled by it.

When my father was dying, it was hard for us to grasp the fact that there was not going to be a cure, he was not going to get better. One day when I was visiting with him and blathering some sort of nonsense about what to do to prolong his life, he said, "I've lived long enough. I've had a great life."

When Grace Dahm Backus, who used to write a birding column for the Post, was dying, I went to visit her and she said nearly the same thing to me. How, I wondered, or when, does one accept "” sometimes even welcome "” death.

That is why I was struck by the West Virginia miner's note. He only had 41 hours to realize he was going to die, to accept that fact, and then to think not of himself, but of those he was leaving behind and, calling on his religious faith, strive to comfort them in what he knew would be horrible grief.

"Tell all I see them on the other side."

He also, in those few hours, had to reflect on what his loved ones would be thinking. "Did he suffer? Was he in excruciating pain?" His love for them led him to write to them to reassure them.

"It wasn't bad just went to sleep."

And then he wrote what every survivor wants to hear.

"I love you."

What courage and character that man exhibited! It makes us wonder if that is how we will approach death. Will we be able to stop thinking of death as only happening to us, and find such reserves of kindness and love for our families? We hope so.

 

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