My first husband, Paul, and my daughter Kirsten, both died suddenly, so when my second husband, Jack, was diagnosed with fourth-stage lung cancer, I began a new journey — walking beside someone who was dying. Little could I have guessed the privilege he would give me and our community by sharing his process openly with us.
On the day of his diagnosis, walking outside from the appointment, he said, “Oh, what a beautiful day.” When the cancer went to his brain, he said “It’s a wake-up call about how precious every day is — let me find the gift in this day.”
Meditative work with fear and anxiety
Jack chose to both do everything to live and simultaneously prepare to die. He wasn’t in denial. Shortly after the diagnosis, Jack woke with words “I am dying.” He set an intention of waking more positively, and one week later awoke with the words, “I am alive today.” He consciously worked meditatively with fear and anxiety when it arose.
Being Public: Conversations & Caring Bridge
Jack’s choice to be open about having cancer allowed conversations about dying with friends who had not been able to say goodbye to family or friends due to denial. His days were lived with connection instead of self-imposed isolation — each day precious and vital. We journaled our journey on Caring Bridge, allowing communications near and far, (see website Beholdingthethreshold.org), and friends held a life celebration for him.
Living and Dying with no regrets: Completion
Consciously wishing to die with no regrets, Jack met with family members to heal past experiences and bring closure and order to personal and financial parts of life. He also turned over his professional work to others, passing on the torch.
Reviewing his life: Passing on the Legacy through Memoirs & Ethical Will
After his diagnosis, he created a video of his Ethical Will, sharing his life values. Then he wrote and taped his memoirs, completing them two weeks before he died. This life review gave him an inner completion, as well as leaving his family the story of his life.
Allowing the Videotaping his Process of Dying
Jack saw his dying as his final life mission, offering to have his dying recorded. His sister, a nationally known death midwife, made a documentary called The Most Excellent Dying of Theodore Heckelman (find a trailer and purchase information on Nancy Poer’s website: nancyjewelpoer.com).
Community Support during the last Two Months of Life
The community rallied when the cancer went to Jack’s brain:
- Physical Needs — Friends offered to build a ramp, help with bathroom rails, meals, drivers, and respite for me as a spouse.
- Soul Needs — Friends asked how our souls could be nurtured. Jack said by singing, so Wednesday evening sings in our home became a fun and sacred time.
- Spiritual Needs — We asked people to be willing to continue to come be with Jack and I during the last precious days, and to hold with us our meditation for inner peace.
Hospice: Facing Death
When Jack could have no more treatment, he was not in denial of his imminent death, and asked for hospice. As a result, the nurses knew his condition before the time came close, and had us call family. Without this intervention, his children would not have been present before he died.
His Wishes for After Death: Three-day Vigil
Jack’s advance directive included after-death care. He wished for a three-day vigil in our home, which became a blessing for the whole community. It was a healing experience for many. A legislator present at his vigil supported legalizing this choice of a public “home funeral” open to all and wrote the bill that changed Minnesota law in 2010.
I share these stories about Jack’s conscious dying in the hope that the ideas will spark permission for others to find their own unique way to live and die consciously. We do have the choice to stay connected when we near this threshold of death, bringing love and sacredness to this passage.