No Crying in Front of Her

Niels Alpert photo from Associated Press

Earlier this month my news feed filled with the headline Terminally ill woman holds party before ending her life. As someone who believes in the importance of funeral and bereavement ceremonies, I was intrigued by how Betsy Davis, a 41 year-old artist with ALS, had approached her final days before being one of the first to use California’s new medical aid-in-dying law.

I read her sister’s account of the weekend-long event, What I Learned Helping My Sister Use California’s New Law to End Her Life, and one by her friend Kestrin, The Art of Departure. I was moved to tears by the details, by imagining what they experienced together. What Betsy termed her “rebirth,” friends described as “the final performance for the artist, who once drew pictures on a stage with whipped cream”… “the most beautiful death that any person could ever wish for…. By taking charge, she turned her departure into a work of art.”

But I was also struck by the “one rule” Betsy laid out for her invited guests: “do not cry in front of me.”

Kestrin writes, “We understood our job was to have as much fun as possible, so she experienced authentic joy in her final hours. All jokes must be actually funny. All laughter, legit. We would not eff this up.”

The eye-witness portrayals of Betsy’s Rebirth Ceremony make it achingly clear that grief was there among them.

“Betsy’s suffering was palpable beneath the joy. Layers of fatigue and disappointment behind her eyes as she tried to communicate. Days earlier she’d texted a friend, ‘I am so ready to leave this body.'”

Tears were shed, most assuredly – just away from Betsy’s view.

Betsy’s story and the three deaths in my own inner circle this past year keep me wondering. Is our notion of a good death a happy death? Does our modern emphasis on Celebrations of Life preclude grieving the end of our days in community? Does grieving with a dying person ask too much of them?

I don’t know what I would do in Betsy’s condition. I’m grateful to her, and to the story-tellers who shared their experience of her death, for giving us all a chance to wonder.

7 Comments on “No Crying in Front of Her

  1. I can see why she wouldn’t want folks to cry in front of her. On the other hand, I think I would want to be compassionate to my guests and be open to laughter and crying. I think they go hand in hand in so many cases. I’m an author and we are taught as we learn to write that if you can make someone laugh first, then when you get to the sad part the reader’s heart is open and the emotion is so much more real. Then, we add another funny part after the sad section, to help heal and move the story along so that it is bearable. This is life, I believe. So, I’m saying, I agree wholeheartedly with you. And, when I read the article earlier, I had the same thought as you.

  2. This story opens up the dilemma of what is being asked of us during the time of a loved one dying and the roles of mystery and authenticity in our choices.
    I have regretted that I hid my tears when caring for my mom during the last three weeks of her life in home hospice. I now think being complicit in “sparing” her my overt grief was a disservice to our mother- daughter relationship. Did I deprive myself of being able to receive the motherly care and even guidance she still had to give, as she was also doing her own work of dying? Did I deprive her of an experience of expressing her own sadness of leaving this world and the people she loved? Though I fulfilled her wishes and managed the practical aspects of that time in the ways she wanted, who’s to say what new kind of bond would have been forged in those precious days were we sharing the deepest and fullest emotional truths about loving each other? As the 2nd anniversary of her death is tomorrow, Sept. 4, I still wonder about these questions.

  3. Amy, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Judy’s comment, below, adds further dimension to this rich discussion with her first-person experience. I don’t believe there’s one right answer, but I do fully trust the value of these questions.

  4. Judy, as we approach the 15th anniversary of my father’s death in October, which followed 18 months of intensive caregiving… and as I continue to process the three deaths in my inner circle this past year… I ask myself the same questions as you’re asking. What a beautiful way to honor your mother’s death, to seek to harvest further wisdom from it about what it means for us to be human, and how we might navigate these times we’re in, where we have so little inherited skill in mourning in community. These continued wonderings are part of how life feeds death. A deep bow to you as you enter this third year of your new relationship with your mother. Thank you so much for writing.

  5. Thank you, Holly, for your sensitive and validating reply to my comment. As you suggested, I hope that I am honoring my mother’s life and death through these explorations. To make my death one that I “achieve” with the love, authentic presence, and wisdom of others, and not just succumb to, is what I hope to prepare for. All the best to you as you feel into the deaths of those three people you mentioned in your inner circle, as well as honoring the 15th anniversary of your father’s death. sincerely, Judy

  6. I’m caring for my mom for the last three months who is dying of liver cancer. Sometimes I don’t have time to cry, but mostly I don’t hide my tears. We look long and lovingly at each other then and tell each other how much we love each other. Those moments are precious and i will remember them forever.

  7. Deborah, thank you for this beautiful glimpse into the grief and love that coexist at your mother’s bedside. May her dying time and all the ways she will be remembered continue to feed the enduring heartbeat of life.

    With warm appreciation for your weary, love-soaked labors,