Read my post on “Thoughts on mourning” before continuing. If you don’t view death as I wrote about it there, you may want to skip today’s post. It’s serious. It’s not about leadership. For me it’s about emotions in dire situations and personal growth. Others may view it as something morbid that they don’t want to read about.
Both husband and wife in a married couple with three young children are longtime friends of mine. The husband, about a year old than me, found out in June that the abdominal pains he’d felt for few months were advanced pancreatic cancer. Nobody expected it.
He died in July, just over a month after the diagnosis. Wikipedia described his case perfectly:
Early on there are usually no symptoms. Symptoms that are specific enough to suspect pancreatic cancer often do not appear until the disease is already in an advanced stage. By the time of diagnosis the cancer has usually spread to other parts of the body.
I visited him in the hospital with his wife a couple times. His body deteriorated fast. I tried to think about how much each of them had to go through, physically and emotionally. Frankly, I didn’t have it in me to think about it.
I didn’t know if I should share about the experience here, but I spoke to his wife yesterday and she agreed on it. I learned a lot from them both, seeing their strength in the face of an experience few face. I believe they’ll inspire others to live fuller lives while they can and posting here will spread that inspiration.
Below is a letter I wrote to an overseas business contact my friend introduced me to—he was incredibly generous with making connections—who couldn’t see him. I hope it conveys some of the experience in a way that helps readers get more out of life. It took me hours to write the note through the tears.
Thank you for the note.
I hope the following isn’t too much from someone you don’t know that well. It felt like what I would want to know, based on what I know of you and your relationship with [our mutual friend]. It’s also just what came out. I apologize if it’s more than you wanted.
I understand that pancreatic cancer can show no symptoms for a long time and then when the symptoms do show, it’s too late to do anything. [Our friend] had abdominal pains during the spring, but didn’t think much of them since he was active with things that make people sore—chopping wood, playing with kids, and such. When he went to his regular doctor about it, it wasn’t the first thing they’d check about, not that there’s much they could have done about it, they later found.
Learning about the cancer revealed there was little medicine could do except decrease the pain, which he described as unimaginable, like being clawed from the inside, so he was comfortable, but couldn’t avoid becoming weak, making communication difficult. As I understood, the cancer was cutting off blood to his liver and other organs, making his body too weak to handle chemotherapy. In the last week or so, his family and nearby friends visited.
He laughed and joked, showing sensitivity and caring to visitors despite it all. At his last service at the hospital chapel, he gave beautiful and touching near-final words. He described how he saw each day as a gift, not concerned with what he might miss, but what he had. He also showed emotional strength to his wife and kids beyond the physical strength the cancer and painkillers deprived his body of. I heard he had seemed too weak to go to the chapel that morning, but somehow gathered the strength and courage to, I believe mainly to perform fatherly rites to and for his children, particularly to walk his daughter down an aisle in advance of when she would when she grew up.
Children, I believe, are resilient beyond what most adults give them credit for. [His wife’s name], his wife, is also resilient, but I believe has the biggest challenge now, facing obligations from the trivial and daily to huge and lifelong. I’ll pass on to her how [he] put us in touch, illustrating yet another relationship he created in his friendly, effective, professional way. I know it will help her feel better, handle what she has to, and keep raising their three children to reach their full potential.
Ten years ago I didn’t get to know people well enough to be included in such situations. A consequence of opening up to people is that you make yourself vulnerable to the pain and sorrow of their loss. I’ve found myself having to stop what I’m doing from my sorrow at losing this friend more times than I have before. That says something about [him], of course, since he was so open and friendly. Opening up also opens you to his and his family’s strength, generosity, and more, which will influence me to accomplish, understand, and enjoy life more than I would have otherwise. I like to think this will be part of his legacy and affect he has on the world.
Thank you again for the note.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees