TCS Daily

'The Gift of More'

By Duane D. Freese - September 2, 2005 12:00 AM

[T]here is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past -- the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized -- and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.
-- Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, 1959

When a young person dies, it's no consolation for the loved ones left behind, particularly parents, that the young person at least had lived a full life. For a mother or father, a life cut short reverses the whole order of life and tips its meaning on its head.

This summer, headlines have focused on one angry, grieving mother caught in that vortex. Encamped outside President George W. Bush's Crawford Ranch, Cindy Sheehan has converted her son Casey's decision to serve his country in the military into an act of martyrdom for her anti-war cause.

Whatever one thinks of her particular views and action, in doing so, she follows a path forged by other mothers, such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers founder Candace Lightner and the Argentine mothers of the disappeared from its dirty war in the 1970s. Her answer to the eternal end-of-life question "why him," "why me" is to, rightly or wrongly, blame President Bush for her son's death.

As Frankl noted, Sheehan's avenue of creating a work or doing a deed is one way to create meaning for life. It, though, is not the only way, as Pamela Yates, another grieving mother, makes clear in her book, "The Gift of More, Lessons of Faith and Love from a Life Cut Short."

Yates -- whose husband Brock Yates wrote the screenplay for "Cannonball Run" and is an automotive journalist -- relates the story of the death of her son from a previous marriage, Sean Keith Reynolds, at the age of 27 from a rare form of cancer of the appendix.

At the start, the book raises a serious ethical questions for medicine - when do you tell a patient he is dying?

On being told that Sean's condition was terminal, Yates told his oncologist, "I don't want him to know. ... [H]e is my child, and I know him best. For the most part he views life in a negative light. I don't want him to retreat to his bed and dwell on dying. He has been robbed of enough time already."

This runs counter to the feelings of many today that a patient, if he or she is competent and of legal age, has a right to know their exact condition so they can prepare for their death.

But what is a patient's exact condition? Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a holistic physician, educator and author now in her 60s, told Martin Miller of the Los Angeles Times in 2004, "If I tell a patient they've had a heart attack, that's a fact. But if I say they have two months to live, that's an opinion."

And it is an opinion, she noted, that can poison a patient's mind - against fighting their disease or against living whatever time they have left to the fullest. She herself was told at 15 she would be dead from Crohn's disease by the age of 40 so she never married or had a family.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, defined the five stages of death as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally acceptance. But she, too, took a dim view of doctors, forcing patients to accept their condition. Responding to a question about how a person should respond to a terminally young person claiming to be miraculously healed despite all medical evidence to the contrary, she said:

        "It is not your role, whether you are a member of the helping profession
        or a family member, to break down a defense. It is your role to help the 
        patient, and if he needs to believe he is cured, it is cruel and untherapeutic 
        to tell him there are no such things as miracles."

Unfortunately, there was no miraculous cure for Sean's disease. But there were miracles, nonetheless.

Yates, while getting Sean's doctors and health care workers not to be brutally honest with him, couldn't prevent them from being brutally honest with her.

After moving her son from Los Angeles, where he was a production coordinator on Truckin' USA, to her home in Wyoming, N.Y., she arranged for his treatment at a clinic in Buffalo. In a call to the clinic, she asked the oncologist there, "Is there any hope?" His icy answer was: "No. None."

        The doctor had pronounced Sean D.O.A. even before seeing him. How could 
        that be? How could we get through the next months without hope? ... We 
        vowed we would help Sean keep his hope for as long as we could. How I hated 
        the secret. How fractured our lives had become - this dance between the
        truth and fiction, life and death.

The dance pitted her against those she found too clinical, and unfeeling -- more medical technicians than health care workers. They incurred, if not her wrath, no little amount of anger.

This might, though, have amounted to her own act of denial and anger about her son's death, as she wrote at one point:

        "No clever treatments, no curiosity, no desire to experiment, no clinical 
        trials - so disappointing. A well known cancer institute like this? You would 
        have thought they could offer more. ... If you don't have a disease that 
        can advance their protocols, it seems as if they simply flush you through the 
        system. A cynical numbers game."

Such treatment by established medical centers led her at times to seek out alternative medical treatments for her son, herbalists and others who might, if nothing else, offer more empathy for his condition and hers. Through an organization Can Help, she was referred to various healers and herbalists:

        "When I called the people he'd referred they provided me with helpful information
        and comfort. I found I was becoming receptive to new ideas, and opening my 
        mind and imagination gave me a new sense of hope."

She found no cures there. Indeed, the most such alternatives have to offer a "placebo effect," with health improvements based more on improving a patient's attitude than any real pharmacological effect.

No. The miracle that lifted Yates from hopelessness and lent meaning to Sean's life wasn't a cure for his disease but a renewal of faith.

Frankl believed that a second avenue to finding meaning in life is by experiencing something or encountering someone. "[I]n other words," Frankl wrote, "meaning can be found not only in work but also in love."

During a conversation one night with her son, he expressed his wish that he "were spiritual."

"I wish I believed in God," he said. "The only time I prayed, I begged God to take away my pain. Instead, he gave me cancer."

Later, Yates found herself talking to the Virgin Mary:

        "Mary, is this my son's destiny? Maybe he wasn't meant to be here long? 
        Maybe I shouldn't try so hard to keep him alive. I'll miss him so. It's not 
        supposed to be like this. I'm supposed to die first. Please take e. Mary, if I 
        only knew there was something more, I think I could let him go."

An awakening of spirituality in her son was a catalyst that enabled Yates to find peace.

In how he carried himself through his suffering - and there is little doubt left in the book about his suffering despite the administration of pain medication -- Sean embodied another avenue to meaning in life - in Frankl's belief, the most important avenue:

        "[E]ven the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot 
        change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing 
        change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph."

Despite his suffering, Sean reached out to his sister and sought her forgiveness for how he had treated her when they were children. And he never expressed to his parents, "Why me?"

That is a common question, for which there is no simple answer. As Kubler-Ross responded to a health care giver on how to handle a patient when he asks, "Why me?":

        "I tell them, 'I don't know why you,' but you may ask the question the other 
        way around, 'Why not you?' Since all of us have to face death and dying 
        it has to happen to any one of us sooner or later. He is really asking, 'Why 
        is it happening to me now?'"

Sean and his mother could have reached for any number of reasons for his death - they might have blamed his fate on one orthopedic surgeon who mistook his pain for cancer to a problem with a disk. But they didn't. Sean instead retained hope of recovery for more than a year, during which he enjoyed a Thanksgiving and Christmas and visits with family despite his pain. And still he reached a point where he could accept his own death.

In one of his last conversations with his mother, when she asked him if he was having trouble breathing, he quietly responded, "No Mom, I'm having trouble living."

He died not long after that, a painful death during which his mother also let go, comforting him at the end:

        "It's okay to leave, Sean. It's time to move on. I'm here. I will be all right. 
        You can go now. There is no more pain, only peace. I love you!" With that 
        he had a final seizure and was gone.

This summer, we've had one mother demonstrate her grief through angry protest, and we've had other mothers demonstrate theirs through support of their son's sacrifice in what they feel is a worthy cause. Yates' book is about another mother's way of dealing with grief, and finding meaning -- through love and acceptance and faith.

But as Frankl and Yates make clear, there are many ways to find meaning and to grieve.

As Yates herself, put it: "Grief is a personal thing. ... Don't be upset with others around you if they do not grieve the way you think they should. They can't - they're not you."

More than defining a way, that is what, for me, makes the Gift of More worth thinking about.


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