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.

10 thoughts on “Lessons for living: What my family learned from a close friend’s death

  1. This was such a powerful, personal account. All too often, we shy away from confronting the scary or unknown. Not clear on how to address the dying or those left behind, we do little or nothing. You have given your children a powerful gift. Not only were they able to experience the journey, but they were present in the moment to say goodbye to the man they loved. And most importantly, they will grow up unafraid, knowing “it’s ok” to accept the sad process of death and do what they need to do to support their loved ones. Thank you so much for sharing this, a lesson to us all.

  2. Thank you so very much for sharing the intensity of Jim’s journey as well as your own. The strength of your friendship and courage to allow your children to experience all aspects of life, including death. I applaud your effort to include us in this raw experience and hope that the feelings of joy, sorrow, memories of all the richness Jim taught you throughout his life comfort your aching heart. Thank you for sharing this experience. You have honored a treasured friend when he needed it most. Yes, standing with someone who is dying is the best way to be a true friend.

  3. You remind me of my own childhood… My Grandfather (who lived with us) didn’t come home one day. It turned out he was hit by a car on his way home and spent a day or 2 in the Hospital before dying. we were not allowed to attend the wake or funeral. It was some time before we new what had happened. My parents tried to shield us from reality. In so doing, deprived my brother and myself of the opportunity to say good bye.

  4. I cried reading this – but it’s ok — I am saving this to re-read

    for when I need it for my own family – to remind me to let my kids

    say goodbye to their grandmother when her time passes – to let them

    know it’s scary and sad – but it’s ok – we as a family will need to

    help her leave in peace and stand together in doing so. I LOVE

    reading your blogs. Thank you!

  5. Thank you for sharing. A beautiful story. I hope I can do the same for my children one day.

  6. Claire McCarthy,
    You are a strong woman of God its a sad thing that u had to undergo this especially the kids BUT they will be a blessed generation.
    Thnks for sharing

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your story, My 6 year old daughter lost her father last year suddenly. This journey having her understand death doesn’t have to be complex and scary and I appreciate that you so gracefully involved your children in his passing. Doing this you have spread throughout your own families generations and understanding of Death that I think God would appreciate and from your future generations others will benefit. Simply beautiful. Thank you for your inspiration, you are a wonderful writer.

  8. Our family just went through a similar experience when a very close uncle died of cancer. I encouraged my children to visit and be kind to him during his last days. I’m sure I was criticized by many but I know in my heart, I made my uncle’s end of life better. I also taught my children how to deal with death in an healthy way. your article just cemented what I already believed. It is important to share the truth with children and reassure them that it will be okay.

  9. What a beautiful gift you have given to your children. This world is so busy with people worrying about themselves, that to commit to helping someone else with such fervor, is not often seen. Your children have learned that life can be very challenging and that we don’t always put ourselves, first. You taught them the importance of visiting, regardless of how he looked, because he wanted them there, at any capacity. They viewed the wrath of cancer in its ugliest form and loved him for his life with them. They will always have the wonderful memories of better times; not right away, they and you, need to mourn your loss. And all of this was done as a “family”. That is so HUGE—we need to put our energies as a country, back to its core…FAMILY. You have done that, with your husband! And I applaud you for that! His spirit will always be there, and he will guide your children through the many trial and tribulations they will encounter throughout their lives. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Theresa A Bogan

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