True Story: I Helped My Friend Die Peacefully

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Suzanne, her best friend JW, and his death.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Suzanne. I’m 56 years old. I’m a clinical psychologist, life coach and family law attorney, based in Honolulu.

I believe that it’s never too late to become the kind of person you really want to be — and I’ve dedicated my career to helping people grow and improve in all areas of life.

Outside of my work, I love spending time in my garden, writing, eating healthy food, and running on the beach. (This sounds a bit like an online dating profile — but it’s true! 🙂

How did you meet your best friend?

I met my friend JW when he was in his early 60s. (I was 29 years younger than him. It was 1990.)

At that time, JW was facilitating a spirituality and personal growth group in Honolulu. He became my spiritual mentor and, in time, we became friends and colleagues. We collaborated on several projects, including co-hosting a weekly radio program that aired state-wide. We had total creative chemistry right from the beginning. We just “got” each other.

What was he like?

When you were in JW’s presence, you felt loved. Not in a romantic or an unprofessional way… you just felt total love. Unconditional love. It wasn’t necessarily anything he said or did. It’s just the way he was, and the way he related to people. It was a type of energy that is hard to put into words. But others who met him, would tell me that they had this same experience.

He was also incredibly generous. As just one example: he once gave a set of plane tickets to a local family so that the parents — who were working hard but struggling financially — could take their young son to Disneyland. JW made it happen for them even though it was a financial stretch for him. That’s just the kind of person he was.

How did your friendship with JW change your life?

When I first met JW, I was already a skilled therapist and I had earned a PhD. But beneath my armor of impressive professional accomplishments, I was deeply insecure and filled with fear. Deep down, I didn’t really trust that I was really “good” at my work or “valuable” as a human being.

But JW had total, unwavering confidence in me. Because of his belief in me — along with the healing and spiritual practices he taught me — I reached a level of self-assuredness I’d never known before. Finally, for the first time in my life, I felt what it was like to be happy. I felt peace, within.

When did you realize he was terminally-ill?

JW went in for a medical check-up because of a nose bleed. He had recently spent 4 days in Las Vegas. He thought that the nose bleed was due to the dry Vegas air.

The doctor ran a full battery of tests. The nose bleed was nothing to be concerned about. But during the routine tests they discovered that he had stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to the adrenal glands.

His condition was terminal. Surgery was not an option. Prognosis: six months to live if he didn’t have chemotherapy or radiation; one year to live if he did.

How did you feel when you found out?

It was a shock. Although he was a smoker, and 79 years old at the time, JW had always been diligent about getting his regular chest x-rays, check-ups, that sort of thing. In fact, his chest x-ray from just a few months back had been negative.

When I found out he had a terminal diagnosis, I didn’t fall apart. As I often do, I went into survival mode… searching the Internet for answers… for a fix… for something to make this go away!

What happened next?

JW decided not to undergo chemotherapy or radiation.

In a sense, he voluntarily chose to end his life — on his own terms — instead of trying to “extend” it just a bit longer or hope for a medical-miracle-recovery. He wanted the end of his life to be joyful and peaceful, not filled with hospital visits and chemicals that he believed would degrade his quality of life.

That was his choice and I supported him.

So you helped your friend move towards the end of his life, peacefully?

Yes. Though, at first, I didn’t think of it that way. JW was at peace with the notion of death (or “making his transition” as he called it,) but I wasn’t OK with losing my friend just yet. I wanted him to live.

I encouraged JW to try natural healing methods — including working remotely with a botanist in Malaysia — and treating his cancer with natural food, exercise and a healthier lifestyle. He was open to all of it. It was amazing to see him transition from being a “meat ‘n potatoes” guy into a juice-drinking, salad-eating vegetarian.

The healthy food and lifestyle — combined with his positive attitude — allowed him to really enjoy the final year or so of his life, instead of enduring the pain and suffering that he associated with conventional treatment.

To JW, that was a gift.

When did you know it was getting closer to “the end”?

A little over a year after JW’s diagnosis, he started to have back pain. Diagnostic tests revealed that the cancer had metastasized to his bones.

It was mostly downhill from there. I was his primary caregiver at the time, preparing his meals, attending to all of his basic needs. I could see him looking strong on certain days, and I’d feel so hopeful — “Maybe he’s going to recover after all!” But I’d also see him growing weaker.

Were you with him at the very end?

Yes. The night before he died we enjoyed some long, long talks about life — sprinkled with humor, laughter and hugs.

The next morning, after I woke up, I went in to check on him. As if he sensed my presence, he opened his eyes. At that moment, we both simultaneously said the exact same words to each other: “That was a wonderful night!”

Then he tilted his head back and seemed to go “somewhere” — as if his spirit left his body.

Those words — “That was a wonderful night!” — were the last words that I heard him speak.

(The fact that we both had spoken them together — in unison — was incredibly beautiful.)

About 10 hours later, he died.

How did you feel when he finally passed on?

At first, I actually felt relief. Now, he could fully rest in peace. I was grateful I had gotten to be there with him — providing the beautiful, dignified setting that he wanted and deserved.

But after that first rush of relief came a different emotion: total grief.

Some small, childlike part of me felt rejected, abandoned, betrayed. Even though I’d been with him through his entire cancer experience — helping him to live comfortably, and also, helping him to die in his own way — we had never really said “goodbye” to one another. We talked about lots of things — all kinds of things — but we never exchanged that one word: “goodbye.”

I felt like I’d been “stripped” of my “right” to say goodbye to my best friend in the way that I wanted to say it. For a long time, I agonized over this.

What did you learn from this entire experience?

I witnessed the importance of trusting ourselves — when a choice that we want to make feels undeniably right. My friend was given “six months to live” if he chose to forgo chemo. He lived beautifully, and comfortably, for double that time. No chemo.

Because of JW’s choices, he was able to die in his own way — in the comfort of home, with his best friend (and another close friend who had stopped by) right by his side — instead of in a hospital. JW’s way of dealing with a terminal cancer diagnosis may not be the right choice for everyone, but it was his choice, and for him? I believe it was the right one.

I also got to experience being a caregiver for someone who is terminally-ill as a privilege, not a burden. Ushering someone into the next chapter of life — or after-life, however you want to think about it — is an unforgettable experience.

And… I also got to experience how important it is to take exceptionally good care of yourself, in order to be an effective and patient caregiver. Letting self-care “slip” is not an option. (My experiences with being a caregiver for JW have inspired several projects for me, including this guidebook for caregivers.)

Above all:

The greatest lesson I learned from JW’s death is that we never really have to say “goodbye” to those we love.

Years after JW passed away, while I was writing in my journal, I asked my departed friend, for the millionth time,

“Why didn’t you say goodbye? Why didn’t you let me say goodbye?”

Without thinking, I wrote down the following words:

“There are no goodbyes, there is only forever.”

I truly feel that JW was guiding my hand and my pen, in that moment. His body may no longer be here, laughing and joking with me, or hosting a radio program with me, but the imprint he left on my life is permanent and undeniable. Nothing, not even death, can take that away.

Our friendship is “forever.

Thank you so much for sharing your and JW’s story, Suzanne. Do you guys have any questions for her?

Two other perspectives: I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 30 and I’m chronically ill

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  1. Nova

    Wow, you two sound like amazing people. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  2. Suzanne Gelb

    You're so welcome, Nova. Thank you for reading the story and for sharing your comment. 🙂

  3. Anonymous

    I really like that statement: “There are no goodbyes, there is only forever.” That's so much better than actually saying goodbye to someone — like the relationship doesn't end. Thank you for sharing your story — lucky you. And lucky JW.

    • Suzanne Gelb

      Yes, that is a beautiful statement. Energy is constant, it is only the form that changes. In that sense, everything is forever. Such a heartwarming concept. 🙂

  4. Ash.

    What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience with us!

    • Suzanne Gelb

      Aloha Ash, you're welcome. It is an honor to share this beautiful experience.

      Grateful to Sarah for creating this space on her wonderful website where we can share and read.

  5. Anonymous

    I enjoyed reading the article, and learned a lot from it. It dealt with a difficult topic in an uplifting and positive way. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

    • Suzanne Gelb

      Thank you for reading… and for sharing. 🙂

  6. Anonymous

    This story is stunning. It made me think of all my friends past, and those yet to pass, and ways I might aspire to approach it in better ways. And it is a truly remarkable thing that you are willing to share something so deeply personal and emotional with us. And it does make me want to be friends with you both – I agree – you sound like two amazing people.

  7. Dara

    Oh my God, I'm in tears! I need to go hug my best friends.

    • Suzanne Gelb

      Hi Dara: Hugs are so precious. Your best friends are truly blessed to receive them from you. 🙂

  8. Travel Bottles

    This is a truly inspiring and motivating story. Helping others is one good trait of having a good heart.

    • Suzanne Gelb

      Aloha Travel: Your comment about helping others is so true. And in the giving is the receiving. 🙂

  9. Kalinda

    Thank you for sharing this story. It helps lessen the fear of death, dying, and the unknown.

  10. Suzanne Gelb

    Thank you Kalinda. Your comment warms my heart.

  11. Anonymous

    Your article is truly inspirational. It's a beautiful account of unconditional love and devotion to a friend. Thank you for an exquisitely beautiful story that touched my heart.

    • Suzanne Gelb

      Thank you for your heartfelt comment. Such a privilege and an honor to share the love, here. 🙂

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