LA VALLEUR COMMUNICATES: Musings By Barbara La Valleur — What Matters In The End?

Every two weeks since June, someone in my family, someone I went to grade school or high school with or — as happened this week — a friend I respected, has died. It’s almost enough to get depressed about. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. But it has given me considerable pause to think about death and dying.

What really DOES matter in the end?

Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that a few weeks ago, Edina City Council Woman, Mary Brindle, in collaboration with the Park Nicollet Foundation, sent me a No. 1 New York Times best-selling book “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande, M.D. In addition to Gawande being a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, he is also a New Yorker staff writer and Harvard Medical School professor. Impressive! Plus, he’s a damn good writer.

A letter accompanying the book from the Park Nicollet Foundation said it was being sent to a group of “concerned citizens” who would come together for a community conversation on the topic in October.

I wasn’t sure why Mary had sent me the book, but after perusing the book flaps, I was intrigued and started reading. It was fascinating and read like a conversation. I certainly highly recommend it.

Arnie Bigbee, my husband, who also read the book, and I were among about 20 others including several physicians attending the discussion this week at the Southdale YMCA. The experience took me back in time to 35 years ago when I lived in Germany.

Then, several of my friends and I were members of an English Discussion Group. We were a multinational group living our days immersed in the German language. We enjoyed getting together and speaking English. Also a few German women attended to expand their English proficiency.

The multinational group made up mostly of women, like myself, had a profession in their home countries but were living in Germany because their husbands were working there. Most of us were stay-at-home moms with very young children.

Each year, one of us acted as moderator for the year, and we’d choose 12 topics. Each person would do her own research on the subject and had 5 minutes to share what she’d learned. Then, it would be opened up for a discussion. The year I was moderating, I suggested we talk about death. You could have heard a pin drop, then heads shaking and lots of “nos!” It took some convincing on my part to have them come around, which they eventually did. Yes, I can be persuasive!

For my research on death, I wrote down everyone who had died in my life — close family and friends since I was 11. The first person I knew who died was my paternal grandmother. The following year, when I was 12, my father committed suicide and was buried on Christmas Eve Day.  That, for me, was a life-changing event. The next year, a boy two years older than me was killed in a tractor roll over.

What I discovered in Germany was that from that early age of 11 to my age later (about 35), I had experienced a close death every two years. My take-away from this was that living through the dying process most definitely shaped who I was and made me a stronger person. I still feel that way today.

b1A few years ago, my sisters and I learn of the first La Valleur who came to the U.S.  We visited his grave at Greencastle Cemetery next to a cornfield in Jasper County east of Des Moines, Iowa. His name was Gabriel La Valleur.  He was born April 7, 1804 in Haut Sarte, France, and died in Iowa Nov. 21, 1887 at age 86.  I’m really happy to know I have great genes.

So what DOES matter, in the end? As Dr. Gawande pointed out in his book, the vast majority of the medical profession is ill prepared to deal with their patient’s dying. They are trained to keep people alive. When his own father, who was also a physician as was his mother, faced decline and death, Dr. Gawande was not prepared to know what to do for him.

A look at the eight chapter titles of Dr. Gawande’s book give a brief but clear idea of the contents. They are “The Independent Self, Things Fall Apart, Dependence, Assistance, A Better Life, Letting Go, Hard Conversations and Courage.”

During the discussion at the Southdale Y, people took turns sharing about their experiences with loved ones. Several people have parents or spouses with dementia, Alzheimer’s or at the end stages of life. Two physicians shared about their own feelings of inadequacy when working with people who were dying.  They agreed that medical schools don’t adequately train future doctors in the art of death and dying. And, yes, it got emotional.

The moderator of our group, Jayaram, asked what actions we could take having participated in the discussion. I said, as a photojournalist who has written hundreds of obituaries, I will write my own. I’d like people to know that I “played full out” in life.

Perhaps the best part of the community conversation, though, was poignantly emphasized by a retired Lutheran pastor who recalled a time early in his career, when visiting a dying parishioner, said, “I know I’m dying, but don’t tell my family.” Then later when he spoke to the family, they said, “We know she’s dying, but don’t tell her.”

Talking about death and dying with your family and close friends is what needs to happen BEFORE it’s too late. Having health care directives is as important as having an up-to-date will. Do it now! And let your family know where they are located.

Turning 70 in July does give me pause to think about my own mortality. While I’m active, healthy and happy today — heck only four years ago I fulfilled one of my bucket list items when I jumped out of an airplane at 14,000 feet — I firmly believe that every day above ground is a great day!

See related story here.

One thought on “LA VALLEUR COMMUNICATES: Musings By Barbara La Valleur — What Matters In The End?”

  • June October 19, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Good job, Barb



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