Lessons for living: What my family learned from a close friend’s death

Claire McCarthy, MD

This summer, I helped take care of a friend as he died of pancreatic cancer.

My five children did too.

Bringing children so up close and personal with death isn’t an easy decision, but this wasn’t just any friend. Father Jim Field was part of our family. We’d known him for twenty years, since he married my husband and me at St. Paul’s in Cambridge. We struck up a friendship almost immediately, and he became an integral part of our life as a family. He was part of all our sacraments—baptisms, funerals, First Communions, confirmation—and part of all our other important family moments, good and bad. He had a way of showing up exactly when we needed him. He was our parish priest, but that came later, and fortuitously.

He and I became very close over the years. Both of us writers, we mostly communicated by email. Brilliant, funny and very wise, he was my touchstone; he kept me centered, always helped me find my way.

He asked me to be his health care proxy, so from the beginning of his journey with cancer (he always called it his journey, not his battle), I was very involved. My children asked lots of questions. What is cancer? Where is his cancer? What will they do? Will he get better? I answered them all honestly, matter-of-factly. When the cancer spread, and any chance of a cure was gone, I told them. They were silent, their eyes big as they sorted through the information.

“When the cancer spread, and any chance of a cure was gone, I told them. They were silent, their eyes big as they sorted through the information.”

It’s okay, I told them. It’s sad and hard, but there’s nothing we can do to change it. All we can do is love him and help him.

I remember one evening when Jim called to say he was in the emergency room. I told Zack, 17, that I had to go. “But it’s ten o’clock,” he said. “You’ve had a long day and you have to go to work tomorrow.”

It’s okay. This is how we take care of people. This is what we do.

Checking in on Jim, and taking care of him, became part of our lives. Nobody argued about going to church—we needed to support Jim. We’d stop by the rectory to visit. We did errands for him. If I had to be at the hospital with him and my husband was working, the big kids babysat the little ones. With quiet seriousness, each child understood that whatever Jim needed from us, we would give.

In late June, he came home to die. His friends and I took shifts staying with him. The kids came to visit; they were clearly a little startled to see him in a hospital bed, in pajamas, achingly thin.

It’s okay. He’d like to see you. Go talk to him.

Liam, 4, came the most—mostly because as the youngest he didn’t have playdates and couldn’t stay home alone. He’d grumble sometimes (because he wanted to play outside instead), but as soon as he saw Jim’s Welsh Corgi he’d be happy, and rub Sophia’s belly and regale Jim with stories (some imaginary) about his day. Elsa, 13, talked about camp—and brought a letter describing what he meant to her that was so beautiful it made Jim cry. Natasha, 9, would smile shyly and answer questions. Michaela, 19, told him about her new job. Zack brought pictures from his trip to Italy, the one Jim helped arrange. Sometimes Jim would be confused, or fall asleep mid-sentence.

It’s okay. This is what happens. Don’t be afraid. He wants you to be here.

It was my husband, Mark, a respiratory therapist with years of ICU experience, who knew when Jim was about to die. He could tell by his sleepiness, and his breathing. I was staying overnight at the rectory, so Mark brought the children to say goodbye.

It’s okay. He may look a little scary, but he’s not in pain. I think he can hear you. Hold his hand, tell him you love him.

And they did, one by one, with tears, bravery and grace. Jim died at dawn the next morning.

As much as we may hate it, death is part of life. We may not want to learn this, but we need to learn it—and we need to find a way to not be afraid.

Jim gave a beautiful sermon on the Saturday before Easter. He talked about Desmond Tutu speaking in a cathedral in Johannesburg before the end of apartheid, saying to the secret police: you have lost. It is decided. Jim went on to say:

The pattern of our lives is forever death to light, captivity to freedom. Even though the light is dim, and my footsteps falter, I am not alone—and it is decided. I stand with you, my community, and I am made strong to say to death: you have lost.

“This is what I wanted my children to learn. We stand with the dying. We are not afraid.”

This is what I wanted my children to learn. We stand with the dying. We are not afraid. We let them know how much they are loved; we care for them and do everything we can to help them leave in peace. My heart is broken, and I will never be the same without Jim. But I am immensely comforted by knowing that he wasn’t alone, and that I was with him on the journey. My children have this to comfort them too. We stand together and are made strong to say to death: you have lost.