10 Unexpected Life Lessons From a Small-Town Obituary Writer
In the healthiest sense possible, Heather Lende has an intimate relationship with death.
She is the longtime obituary writer in her small Alaska hometown of Haines, having memorialized some 400 departed locals, neighbors, friends. She volunteers at the hospice center, and had her own close brush with oblivion. Ten years ago, Lende was hit by a truck while bicycling; the vehicle ran over her torso and crushed her pelvis. She was lucky to survive.
By no means has proximity to death stifled her life. Lende is a cheerful mother and grandmother, a gifted writer and author of multiple books, a performer in the local theater and a community volunteer.
Her latest book, out April 28, is “Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer.” We spoke with Lende for Sophia, a HuffPost project to collect life lessons from accomplished people.
She shared 10 key insights she’s learned from her years of observing people living well and dying well, too.
1. The under-appreciated joy of ordinary days.
One of the most difficult obituaries I worked on was for someone who was still alive. I’d never done that before.
It was a woman that I knew, not close. She used to live in Haines and then moved to Juneau, younger than I am, and she came up to me on a ferry and asked if I would write her obituary. I knew she’d had breast cancer, but I thought she was better. She taught second grade. Her kids were younger. She wanted to talk so her husband wouldn’t have to do it after she died.
She didn’t ask to see the obituary before she died, and in fact, I didn’t write it until after she died because I was afraid I might jinx it. I had all my notes for almost a year; she lived longer than she thought she was going to.
It was really interesting to talk with her. I had permission to ask her questions that I would have liked to know from a lot of people. She was 48 or 49, with a terminal diagnosis. I said to her, “You’ve got maybe three months, six months while you’re still feeling good. What do you want to do with your life?”
And she said the thing she really wanted to do was just have another ordinary day. She wanted to go to school, and teach second grade, and come home and have dinner with her family.
And she said she’d actually done this big family trip to Hawaii. It was going to be the last family trip, and they were going to be all together, and she said it was just miserable. Everybody cried the whole time, because it was like they were saying goodbye.
They just wanted to go home and get up in the morning and do what they did every day. For me, that kind of moment is like…yeah, absolutely. Maybe you need to hear that from someone that’s dying.
It’s kind of like “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder; at the end of that play, the character Emily runs around and says, “Does anybody really appreciate life while they have it? Do they know?” And no, of course not. Of course not. But the more I bump up against that kind of stuff, I try [laughs]. I try to remember it.
I think you can purposefully step back from stuff and say that to yourself. “Oh yes, thank you. Thank you just that I’m awake this morning.”
2. Respect people’s last great excuse to sometimes be a pain in the ass.
When you’re with someone who is dying, my biggest piece of advice is: no judgment. Whatever they’re feeling, I know it might sound a little hokey, but you really need to honor it.
If they’re angry, don’t tell them, oh, you shouldn’t be angry, you should be happy, or whatever. Let them be angry.
I was with a guy who, all he wanted was to watch CNN. These are the last years of his life, and his family was upset because they wanted to have these deep conversations, and he just — that wasn’t going to happen. It seems to me that when you’re dying, you should be able to do what you want [laughs]. I mean, that’s sort of your last great excuse. Whatever is making them fulfilled at that moment, honor that.
3. At the end, sometimes there’s just time. Be present for it.
Something else that’s important is just being with people. Hanging around. Being present. Not looking at your phone and texting; not pacing up and down or scanning the computer for things, just sitting quietly with somebody and being there, in case they turn and want to say something, or in case you notice they might need some water or a little glycerin on their lips, depending on how close they are to the end.
It’s hard to do because we’re all so busy, and you want to do something. There’s a tendency to come running in and you start cleaning the house, or you’ll make food, or you’ll cheer everybody up. But sometimes doing nothing is more important than anything, if that makes sense.
The thing about dying and being ill to me is, it’s very similar to having little babies. The end of life and the beginning of life share a lot in common. There’s just time. And it seems that the quantity of time might be more important than the quality. You rarely just get that on-demand “moment.” If you suddenly want to hear something meaningful from your friend, or that last forgiveness or wise words, it might take six or seven hours of just being there, doing maybe nothing at all, before that comes out. It doesn’t just happen, like I’ve got 20 minutes, so let’s go. I want to tell you everything about what you mean to me, and you can tell me, and we’ll have this great closure, and then I’m going to go off and do my other stuff.
The time that it takes to die is often like the time it takes to be born, and labor can last a long time. It just is what it is. It’s a real lesson in being present for people and paying close attention.
4. Accepting death is important, and it’s not the same as giving up.
I walk on the beach every morning with a friend of mine who’s a hospice director. She is reading this book called “Deathing,” like living. The premise of the book is that you can die purposefully, in much the same was as you can live purposefully, and that if you’re more aware of when you’re dying, it makes the experience better.
I’ve had some very close friends who were all organic and healthy and walked every day, and they ended up with cancer and died at 60. One of them fought it every inch of the way, had every treatment possible until she was hardly recognizable. Even to the very end she was trying to get on a plane to go get some more chemo, and they couldn’t put her on the plane. She was too weak to fly out of the small town I live in. She was angry about that.
I had another friend who, once she was told that treatment was just prolonging the inevitable, she was almost beatific in the way she left the world. I don’t think you know how you’re going to respond to that until you actually get the diagnosis.
But I’m a hospice volunteer and I’ve been around some deaths. Some are better than others, and the ones that seem to go better are when the person is more accepting.
5. A helpful mantra: “It’s good that I’m here.”
I met a woman who was a hospice volunteer. She was older, so a lot of the people she was working with were her friends. I said, how do you do it sometimes? She said, I tell myself before I walk in the door that it is good that I’m there — and then I try to make it so.
This didn’t make the book; I could never quite articulate how to say it. But I think that’s so important. I’ve started to do this. I’ll look around the room and I’ll think to myself, “Well, it’s good that I’m here.” And then I’ll think, “How is it good that I’m here? There must be something good I can do for these people in this room at this moment. If I just wait, maybe it’ll happen.”
There’s something to that. I wish there was a simple way to find the good around you all the time. But life is more complicated than that, and the way we live it is.
But if we consciously catch ourselves when we’re in one of those grumpy, nothing-is-going-right moods, and say, “Wait a minute. What can I do here to make this situation better?” And often turning towards making it better for someone else, in one of those backdoor kind of ways, it makes it better for you.
6. Will you be missed?
The lives that are most rewarding and fulfilling are the ones where people have had good relationships with people, whether it’s friends, family, whatever. They’ve had meaningful relationships so that at the end of their lives, they’re missed.
It’s not just about their accomplishments, whether their professional accomplishments or personal things, sports and so forth. It’s that when they’re gone, people really miss them.
They could be people who really, in one view, hadn’t done a whole lot. They might not have gone to college or served in the military. They weren’t a Navy Seal or whatever. They worked at the local grocery store for 30 years, but they always said hello. Their kids liked them, their wife liked them, and so on.
When you get right down to it, that’s what counts. It sounds so clichèd, but look at what happened on 9/11. All those cellphones. Everybody was just saying, “I love you.” They weren’t checking bank accounts and stuff. They were saying, “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
And at the risk of sounding sappy, that’s it. In the grand scheme of things, if you’ve got that part down, then other stuff builds on that.
7. Small thoughtful acts of kindness matter a lot.
About a month ago I wrote about a woman who had traveled a lot in her youth, and now she was older and she’d lived in Alaska a long time and hadn’t traveled so much. But whenever she heard of someone in town who was taking a trip, she would send them a little traveling money, like 20 dollars or something. “Enjoy your trip!” Just a little traveling money, for getting on the ferry or buying a cup of coffee.
I learned that writing obituaries. These acts aren’t big, not earth-shattering. But they change the world a little bit.
I recently wrote about a guy who died, he was 89. He had lived in kind of a homestead situation with goats. Everybody knew him as Goat Man. It made me want to get a goat, though my husband won’t do this because the Goat Man also didn’t smell very good [laughs].
But talking to his neighbors, it just made me laugh. He would stroll down the road with this billy goat that followed him like a dog.
One neighbor said that they were in his house sometime during a winter storm and they looked up and there’s a goat standing on the bookshelf, like a stuffed goat, only it’s alive. And they look up and were like, “What’s the goat doing in the house?” The old man said, “Oh, you know, just keeping him in out of the weather.” And I thought, what a nice man to bring his goat in out of the weather. I have to take better care of my dog [laughs].
8. What are you waiting for?
I’ll write about somebody who at 70 is going to raft down the Grand Canyon. They’re doing something adventurous like that. And then sometimes I do obituaries for people who are — it’s almost the opposite.
They said they always wanted to go to Africa, or they were saving up money to go on safari, and then they died. And you think, if you have something you really want to do, maybe you should go sooner. I hate writing an obituary where some family member will say, “They had planned to do this, and they had planned to do that.”
Do it while you can. What are you waiting for? You just never know; people are here one day and they’re gone the next.
9. The bright side of getting hit by a truck.
We asked Lende to talk about how her near-death experience ten years ago had altered her life.
Thanks for reminding me about that [laughs]. It’s huge. I was writing obituaries before then and writing them since, but I think after that I just became much more aware of my own mortality in a real way.
When you’re in an ambulance and you’re medevaced and they’re telling you you might not make it, it changes everything. I know I am more compassionate toward anybody who’s had something going on. It could be you. You could be on the top of the world one minute and the next minute diagnosed with some debilitating illness or get hurt or whatever, and through no fault of your own.
I realized how everybody’s been hit by a proverbial truck. Cancer, divorce, you name it. Everybody’s got something, everybody does. You can’t live to be 30 or 40 without having had something that is like getting hit by a truck.
I was lucky enough to get hit by a real truck, and so it was very public in a way. People can see my damage and respond to it. But I think all the time, almost every day, that I’m talking to somebody that has been hit on one level or another, and you don’t even know it.
Also, having had something like that happen, it might sound corny but it’s true — I’m really lucky. I feel really grateful that I’m here and that I’m okay. I’ve had five grandchildren since then; they are a big part of my life, and I wouldn’t have had that.
Every day counts. You could get hit by a car. A safe could fall on your head. I’m one of those people that think that, and now I have proof that it can happen. And so as a result I just walk a little happier on the earth.
And it’s really interesting because I don’t know how much control you have of that. I think in some ways we’re hardwired. I know another man that got hit by a car and he’s just mad all the time. He’s still pissed about it. And it wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t his fault, and he’s not the same physically. And I could have that same attitude too, but I don’t, and I don’t know why. I’d like to say I’m this good person, but not really.
I think you might be hardwired to respond that way. Unfortunately, you don’t know it until it happens to you. I’m glad that mine came out that way. I’m fortunate. I have a nice husband and I have nice children and I live in a small community and life’s pretty good. It might have been very different if I was alone in that situation and I hadn’t had all the support that I had. If I was just by myself on my back for months. And that didn’t happen to me, so I got a lot of really good care and love and feedback that certainly I would be like crazy if I didn’t come out of it thinking I was lucky.
More than anything, I’ve been very lucky. And some people are and some people aren’t and it’s not fair.
10. Take good care of the garden and the dogs.
My mother was one of those people who, when she was dying, fought it every inch of the way. She kept going in for another surgery and another surgery. We were surprised, because she’d always been the person who said, “When this thing goes bad, I’m not going to get all the treatment. I’m just going to go back to my farm and be happy and gracious and play the piano and walk my dogs and take care of my garden and die.”
My mother died optimistically. She didn’t think she was going to die, even to the very end. The last time she could talk, she was going in for another surgery. My dad was going alongside her. And my father said to her, “Sally, is there something you want to tell us? Because this could be it.”
She wrote him a note that said, “Take good care of the garden and the dogs.” Not “I love you,” or “thank you,” or “you mean the world to me,” or whatever you want to hear from your mother or your spouse or your grandmother at the end of their life.
But we had that note around. We passed it around and I thought about it. I thought about it a lot.
One day I was working in my garden and I was throwing sticks for the dogs and I was listening to one of my daughters who was playing the piano, and she sounded just like my mother, because my mother would say, “Oh nuts,” when she hit the wrong note. And my daughter was saying, “Oh nuts.” And I was like, “Gosh, just like my mother.”
And I just realized that taking care of the garden, or taking care of the dogs, taking care of the household, taking care of the people around you — that’s good advice. It’s not bad advice to live by. And if that’s the only advice you got from your mother, you could do worse than that. In fact, I think it’s really good advice to take care of your garden and your home and your animals and your children.
And whether that’s literally or figuratively, it’s the place that we live. Maybe I’m giving my mom a pass on that one, but I thought about it a lot, and I think that is good advice.
[H/T: Huffington Post]