It Really Does Matter How We Die

By Seasons | June 21, 2018
Alan Poteet is a chaplain with our team in Houston. His wife Becky was on our service for a few months in Houston until she died in March of cancer. Alan wrote this tribute about how his wife’s illness and character continues to bless not only him, but others as well, in the most surprising of ways.

It was Sunday morning, the day after my wife’s Memorial Service, and I was on call (my choice). An email indicated a patient in the hospital may desire hospice care. Someone else was scheduled to respond first but our admin on call, for some reason, thought I should go. I would soon find out why.

After meeting for some time with the spouse and several other family members, another family member walked up to the waiting area and I introduced myself. I generally give only my first name, but for some reason I used my full name–Alan Poteet. I sat down with the spouse to continue our discussion and she had turned pale; like she had seen a ghost. Then she slowly spoke my wife’s name as a question: “Becky Poteet?” Now I was pale. A lump formed in my throat and my eyes began to water. I choked out the words: “Yes ma’am. She was my wife.”

She went on to tell me that her husband, Ted, who was about to come on our hospice service, had visited Becky in the hospital about a year and a half earlier while she was recovering from cancer surgery. I had never met Ted or his family, though I discovered we were part of the same church. Ted was a member of the cancer ministry team and provided support for the cancer patients of our church. At the time he visited Becky in the hospital, my daughter, Jeana, had relieved me so I could go home and shower. So my very first meeting with Ted, and his family at the Medical Center, was fortuitous and certainly providential.

I slowly learned some things about Ted. He was passionate about the people he encountered in his cancer ministry. The day he visited Becky, he had received some intense treatment for his heart disease and was supposed to go home and rest as he was very weak. He refused. He was determined to make this supportive care visit. Furthermore, Ted continued to pray for Becky and talk about her to others, soliciting their prayers, for a year and a half.

I asked the family why he was so committed about praying for her? They told me that Ted had experienced a very similar reaction to his diagnosis. When he met Becky, she was in a very tough place, not only physically but emotionally and spiritually. Ted saw himself in Becky, and in her reaction to her circumstances. He had worked through this in his own life and now felt called to carry the burden of a fellow struggler. In fact, when I made subsequent visits to the hospital to support him and his family, I introduced myself to the nurse on the floor who had been caring for Ted and his family for about three months. She said to me, “I know who you are. Ted has told me about Becky.” I could not believe it! This man, whom I’d just met, had visited my wife one time, had been talking about, and praying for her for a year and a half! Not praying only for her physical healing . . .

Ted was praying she would find peace with her situation and with God. Well… his prayers, and the prayers of many others were answered!

At this point, I felt Ted needed to know this before he died. A couple of days later, I visited Ted and read to him a letter Becky had written and posted on her Facebook page. She wrote about her cancer journey and the blessing hospice had been, and she reflected on the amazing depths she had encountered in her relationships with family, friends, and especially God. She grew to accept her situation and amazingly wrote these words: “I’m glad this happened to me.” Her journey of suffering provided the crucible for her transformation. The pain she went through developed in her something more beautiful than before. Yes, she wanted physical healing, but ended up receiving something far greater.

When I finished sharing this with Ted, who was nonverbal during our visit, I saw some movement in his body and he began to muster all the energy he had, and in a strained whisper, he said, “Thank you!” And then he added “Oh wow! Oh wow!” These were the very last words I heard Ted speak. I visited him one more time, the day before he died. His family had been struggling with why he had lingered for so long and one of his daughter’s told me that she believed it was for this very encounter. He needed to hear this, as did his family. I was later told at Ted’s viewing that his wife, Pat, was telling “everybody” about this.

For me, Ted became the face of all the people who cared for my wife. And for him, I believe Becky became the culmination of all the people for whom he had provided ministry and prayer. It seems hearing from me that she had finally received the peace he had been praying for, provided one of the pieces he needed for a fitting closure to his life. He received validation that his work was not in vain. He could now go in peace.

Meeting Ted and his wonderful family overwhelmed me. One morning, I found myself crying tears of joy because this encounter reinforced the fact that the ability to experience a good death is dependent on a community of caring people. The acceptance and peace Becky achieved was not without much struggle. But people like Ted and our very own staff helped to make it happen. Becky told me many times, “I don’t know how I could have done this without hospice, and without my family and friends.”

Although she experienced this amazing ending to a beautiful life, it certainly does not take away the extreme pain of the loss of my wife and best friend.

But it does help tremendously to mitigate the complications of grief that arise without a good death. And all of the care and love given to my wife by so many had a ripple effect on our family, Ted’s family and a number of others, including a friend in Arizona.

On Memorial Day Weekend, we held a second Remembrance Service in Arizona for family and friends who lived in the area. During our reflection time, one friend said, “…the thing that stood out most for me about Becky is the way she died. She taught me how to die. Now, I am no longer afraid to die.” I was so humbled and blown away by this beautiful tribute. I will cherish it for the rest of my life. It really does matter how we die.

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