Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

Archive for January, 2021

Coming to Terms with the Loss of Control

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  • Citibank… “Personal Loan — Take Control of Your Debt.”
  • ACP brochure from Rochester, NY… “Advance Care Planning — Know your choices, share your wishes: Maintain control…”
  • Sears MasterCard… “Take control of your finances.”
  • SunTrust Bank… “Stay in control — transfer money where you need it, when you need it.”
  • National Car Rental… “Take Control. Join the Emerald Club Today.”
  • TSA PreCheck… “Take Control of Your Travel.”
  • VW… “A new Volkswagen means a new adventure: Take Control.”

Do you see a common theme in these ads?

Advertising professionals hook us by using the word “control” all the time. They know how important it is to us. We spend our lifetimes trying to gain control. Yet, when we come to the end of our lives, we must let go of so much control. When I speak at events, I always leave this topic for last — “Coming to terms with the loss of control.”

My favorite quotes on letting go of control at the end of life

Elaine M. Prevallet, S.L., “Borne in Courage and Love: Reflections on Letting Go,” Weavings, March/April, 1997

“The idol of control holds out to us the hope that suffering and death can be eliminated. If we just get smart enough, we will gain control of pain and even of death. That false hope, in turn, has the effect of setting suffering up as an enemy to be avoided at all costs. We can choose never to suffer!”

Daniel Callahan, The Troubled Dream of Life: Living with Mortality

“Self-respect and integrity need not, and ideally ought not, to be grounded in a capacity to control our lives and mortality.… What has come to count too much is that our choices affect outcomes in the world; we are at sea when we cannot do so. Modern medicine and the modern temperament … reject solving problems of illness and death by adopting an interior stance of acceptance, choosing instead action and domination.… Our capacity to act, to do something, is cherished — something preferably affecting the outer world of nature rather than the inner world of the self.… We do ourselves a great and double harm by focusing the meaning of self-determination, and the shaping of a self, on our capacity to make external choices, to act.”

Scene from the play and movie W;t (Wit), by Margaret Edson

– VIVIAN (Terminally ill patient): I can’t figure things out. I’m in a quandary, having these … doubts.

– SUSIE (Nurse): What you’re doing is very hard.

– VIVIAN: Hard things are what I like best.

– SUSIE: It’s not the same. It’s like it’s out of control, isn’t it?

– VIVIAN (crying, in spite of herself): I’m scared.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl was a psychotherapist, author, and holocaust survivor. He discovered that, even when he had lost so much control, he still had the freedom to choose his response to his situation.

“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.… Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.… In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.… It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”

The Serenity Prayer

“God, grant me the
“Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the
“Courage to change the things I can and the
“Wisdom to know the difference.”

How to Get to “It Doesn’t Matter!”

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“Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.48.2, quoted in The Daily Stoicby Ryan Holiday, p. 26


My father, Hampton Dunn, age 33, managing editor, The Tampa Daily Times

In many ways, my father’s death wasn’t particularly remarkable. His physical and mental abilities just went downhill and after four years in a nursing home — he died.

And, in many ways, his life was not so remarkable when compared to others who grew up in the Depression and fought in World War II.

Further, in many ways, his emotional and spiritual journey in his last days, months, and years were not unlike hundreds of others I had accompanied during my time as a chaplain.

I’ve been thinking about these things as I prepare for a virtual talk I will give on February 4th on the emotional and spiritual concerns at the end of life. Last week, I listed the seven concerns I have noticed in my work and research. One of the concerns is “Gaining a sense that what is happening is okay: ‘Letting be.’”

Writing became my father’s life

Dad (right), age 49, public relations director, AAA

My father never finished college. It was 1936 in the depths of the Depression. He got his dream job as a newspaper reporter and never finished his degree. Some fifty years later he did get an honorary doctorate from his former school, the University of Tampa. Writing became his life: first at the Tampa Daily Times; then on TV in Miami; then back to Tampa as the public relations director for AAA; and finally, after retiring from his day job at age 70, he went back into TV work.

Hampton Dunn, age 73, TV personality

It was that final TV stint, doing a two-minute spot each week featuring an on-location story about Tampa history, that gave rise to my dad teaching me a lesson on how to prepare for death.

Dad developed Parkinson’s and had to give up writing, public speaking, and TV. He could no longer type or turn the page in a book to do research. He eventually needed assistance for all activities and a nursing home was the only answer.

A moment of insight… and acceptance

Me with Dad, age 82, nursing home resident

One day we picked up dad at the nursing home to go out for a drive. I was driving. My father was in the passenger seat. My mother and nephew were in the back seat. We got stuck at a traffic light in the dense suburbs of North Tampa. Across the intersection, on the far corner, stood an abandoned forest lookout tower. The forests are long gone, and the tower is now a historic site. From the back seat, Mom said, “Your father did a TV spot at this corner.”

Dad corrected her, “I did several!”

Still stuck at the light, I thought I could pass the time, so I asked, “When was that tower last used as a fire tower?”

Dad started thinking. That date was locked in his brain somewhere but the damage from Parkinson’s and strokes prevented him from finding it. Knowledge of history was so important to my father. He had written eighteen books on Florida history and now he could not remember a date.

Slowly he turned to me and with a big grin on his face he said, “It doesn’t matter!” He had gotten to the point of “gaining a sense that what is happening is okay.” Others have characterized this as “acceptance.”

My dad never looked forward to his decline, but when it came, so much else didn’t matter. It was “okay” in the sense that the vast majority of humanity follows this same path of decline toward the end and now he had accepted it, too.

End-of-Life Spiritual & Emotional Concerns

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“What has been the meaning of my life?”

“What happens to me after I die?”

“Please forgive me.… I forgive you.”

In my very first blog post almost ten years ago I told the story of a woman who was struggling with making an end-of-life treatment decision for her mother. She told me, “I think I’m feeling guilty because I haven’t visited mother enough.” That encounter became a metaphor for me. When making end-of-life decisions, patients and families are most often struggling with emotional and spiritual issues.

On February 4th I am giving a virtual talk for Mission Hospice titled, “Spiritual and Emotional Concerns at the End of Life.” (1:00 – 2:30 pm Pacific Time or 4:00-5:30 pm Eastern) You can register here.

Of course… I’m a chaplain. It’s my job to seek out emotional and spiritual concerns. My colleagues –  doctors, nurses and social workers – tend to agree with me. I have summarized these emotional and spiritual concerns in a brief list. Below is my list, which grew out of what I have observed in my patients, their families, in my own life, and by reading the writings of the mystics and “death-and-dying” literature.

Spiritual and Emotional Concerns at the End of Life

(I have provided links to previous posts on some topics.)

  • Answering the question, “What is the meaning of my life?” (I wrote about here.)
  • Seeking forgiveness and reconciliation
  • Gaining a sense that what is happening is okay: “Letting be”
  • Gaining a sense of being part of a greater whole, often expressed as living beyond death (see here and here).
  • Coming to terms with the denial of death (see here)
  • Letting go of all I have worked for over a lifetime: “The illusion of the self”
  • Coming to terms with the loss of control

Over the next two weeks heading toward my presentation, I will pick a couple of these and write about them.

I welcome your suggestions to add to my list. Please email me at [email protected].


“Dad…” Kids Need Friends to Stay Healthy, Too

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Ashley and her family

“Dad… the biggest combatants of dementia are exactly what we teach in our [suicide prevention program],” my daughter responded on Facebook to my last post on friends, hearing loss, and dementia.

My daughter, Ashley Dunn Harper (@Ashharper9333), is a middle school counselor and mother of three, one in middle school and two in high school. (We’ll not get into them being three of the greatest grandchildren.)

Ashley works in Loudoun County Public Schools in the D.C. suburbs of Virginia. Sadly, teen suicide is an issue the school system, counselors, teachers, and parents have had to address. LCPS has chosen the Sources of Strength model to try and get a handle on this terrible problem.

Reducing the risks of teen suicide AND Alzheimer’s

In my blog, I quoted two lists of things to do to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s. Ashley saw those lists and immediately recognized the similarities between her work in helping teens live a healthy life and avoid suicide and my observations about mental health in the closing years of life.

The “Sources of Strength” list includes this: “Positive friends lift us up, make us laugh, are honest with us, and are there for us when we need them.” This is not unlike the lists I quoted which included “Having two or three close friends” and “Interacting with friends.”

I did notice the list for teenagers specified positive friends. My spin on this is that by the time we get to our sixties and seventies we have already dropped negative “friends” from our lives. Teens are still learning there is a difference.

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