Two Stories of Dying in America

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After years of walking amongst the dying, I have come to one overwhelming conclusion.

We are scared to death … of dying. Studies show that a significant portion of people are afraid of death and the deaths of our loved ones. In fact, there is even a field of study devoted to the human reaction to death and dying called thanatology.

But just as pervasive is our fear of life — specifically, we’re afraid of screwing up our one shot to live a good life. This fear pervades just about everything we do, leading to shame and disappointment, and straining on our relationships. We set standards high, then obsess about what will happen if we fall short.

All too often these standards are built on a rocky foundation of ideas we’ve never really examined. Central among them is the belief that if we just accumulate enough wealth, it will somehow stave off death or at least mitigate our inadequacies and disappointments. No wonder there is a mental health crisis! We can’t escape death. Can’t control it. We can throw all the money at death that we want, but no amount can keep it away forever.

I want to share two stories of people living, and dying, under very different economic circumstances. On the surface, they share little more than a close proximity to death. But if we can look past their bank accounts, we’ll see two men who died with the same regret: that they did not have enough.

Charlie’s story

Signing the divorce papers was probably Charlie’s lowest point. His wife was sitting by his side, occasionally swatting at some fly buzzing around the room.

There was no fly.

Charlie tried to focus on the legal papers through his tears. He had no intention of leaving his beloved’s side. But to ensure Paula received an adequate level of care for her Alzheimer’s, he had to sign the divorce papers and declare her bankrupt. Only then would Medicaid pay.

He regretted not being able to take Paula home to live out her final days. Although one could barely call the cramped condo they’d been forced to downsize to years earlier a “home.” Their last days together bore little resemblance to the years they’d spent raising their kids in a tony suburb. More than anything, Charlie regretted how little they’d thought about their financial future when there was still time.

Charlie’s health deteriorated rapidly after Paula’s death. He used what little energy he had to clear out his best friend’s belongings from the tiny space they shared. Any last bit of money the divorce had spared was gone. His body was weak, his joints stiff. He got into bed one evening after drinking a little too much and, when he woke up, found he lacked the strength to lift himself up. Instead, he gently rolled down to the floor and crawled into the bathroom. There would be no 911 calls. He would not spend his last days in some god-forsaken institution. It was bad enough admitting to his kids when he needed help; he cherished his time with them, and didn’t want them to know how tight things had gotten.

Eventually, Charlie’s heart failed. His doctor recommended immediate hospitalization. Charlie refused. When the doctor pleaded with him to hire around-the-clock caregivers, Charlie laughed. He barely could keep his lights on and the water running with his measly Social Security checks.

Charlie died with his kids at his side, and a heart full of love, memories, and experiences — and yet, a bank account devoid of the funds to provide the most basic comfort.

Connor’s story

Connor vaguely heard his grandfather’s words as he added the last flourishes to an email. Something about working too much, about none of his money being worth the sacrifice. A quick glance at his Rolex confirmed that his sister would arrive in a few minutes to take over the babysitting obligation. The distributors meeting could only be delayed so long.

He turned to his grandfather.

“Come on, Grandpa, you pretty much own this hospital wing!”

The patriarch was dying. He began building a multibillion-dollar manufacturing business when he was Connor’s age, and now here he was, about to leave his legacy to his thankless children and his self-absorbed grandchildren. Connor, his namesake, was no better than the rest. Yet, what could he expect? The young man shared much more than his name. His tenacity and focus made him a perfect fit to take the helm of the multinational conglomerate.

For his part, Connor respected his grandfather — even revered him. Yet, the old man’s passing at the hands of some cancer or another was neither sad nor surprising. It was just another inconvenience in the busy life of a young CEO.

When Connor finally took his eyes off his phone, it was too late. His grandfather had stopped breathing. Some great force had mysteriously extinguished itself.

I wonder what might have gone through Connor’s head at this moment. Was he thinking about his own work not being worth it? About what his own wife was doing those nights he was away on business?

Is that what his grandfather was talking about?

The alarm on his iPhone buzzed — the meeting was in 15 minutes. He tucked his briefcase under his arm and rushed past the nursing station towards the elevator. It never occurred to him to notify his family.

The patriarch was dead.

When Enough Is Not Enough

Why, despite such radically different circumstances, do these stories share such a similar sense of tragedy? Charlie had an enviable relationship with his wife and clearly loved her till the last moment. But without enough money, he was stuck with few choices, a “Medicaid” divorce, and a shocking lack of comfort as he lay dying.

Connor Sr., a powerful businessman who could buy his own hospital wing, had different regrets. His daily activities lacked purpose. His identity was wholly defined by his work. He died without experiencing love or true connection.

He found that “more than enough” was also not enough.

Excerpted from Taking Stock by Jordan Grumet, MD. Copyright © 2022 Ulysses Press. Reprinted with permission from Ulysses Press, New York, New York. All rights reserved

Jordan Grumet, MD, is the host of the Earn & Invest podcast and his book, Taking Stock: A Hospice Doctor’s Advice on Financial Independence, Building Wealth, and Living a Regret-Free Life, is available from Ulysses Press.

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