Mom with ZierMy mother, age 85, had experienced some weight loss over the summer. Because her doctor had changed roles, she no longer had a primary care physician. By early fall, I knew I’d have to help her get started with someone else, so I made a few calls and hooked her up with a doc who was well-known for a great bedside manner with the elderly. I went along with her to the first appointment and, right away, he suspected her gall bladder. A few weeks later, tests had confirmed it was malfunctioning and we gathered in the outpatient surgery center at her award-winning regional hospital. When the surgeon came in after an all-too-brief procedure, we were taken back to learn that cancer, now at stage IV, had completely infected virtually every type of organ and tissue in her abdomen. According to the surgeon, Mom would be lucky to see Christmas. Looking back, the surgeon was spot-on. We buried her in the Lucas Cemetery a week ago Saturday, exactly 30 days after first learning of her condition.

I reflected with visitors at her funeral visitation that it would appear that, with Stage IV cancer at age 86, there are really only 3 options.

First, one could get hit by a concrete truck coming out of the hospital. At first, this solution appears to be the best. After all, no matter how you slice it, cancer is an evil monster that consumes you from the inside-out. But the downside of this solution is, you have little opportunity to say goodbye to friends and family members. What’s more, if you haven’t prepared for the worst, you have zero time to do so in this approach.

At the other end of the spectrum is the one-year version. In this particular solution, one spends an inordinate amount of money for outlandish treatments, eventually landing in professional care institutions that might sap all your dignity, your savings, and your family time. Sure — due to all the fancy treatments, one might gain 60 days or so. But, according to some, the quality of the time drops exponentially.

My mother chose the 30-day option. No treatment whatsoever. She opted for a great hospice organization (Premier Hospice in Seymour, Indiana — we hope you’re lucky enough to live in southern Indiana so you can use them?) and spent her final month relaxing in her own home. I overheard her once, while I was doing dishes in the next room, telling a friend on the phone, “There’s no doubt cancer is a terrible outcome, but I have to say — it’s great having my sons living here again.” We took turns serving her, each of us grateful for some saved-up vacation and/or “family leave” time (and for understanding organizations, along with teammates who covered for us). Although Mom didn’t like the downside of cancer, she loved having her 3 sons in the house again. We laughed, reminisced, reflected, and, thank God, prepared one another for what might have been a terrible road ahead.

So… all of that to say, what lessons have we learned from losing my mother? Here are a few, in no particular order:

a) Get checked-out regularly, regardless of your age — One would think that by now we’d all know this. But I’m kind of surprised that there are still many people who don’t take advantage of annual check-ups. To me, it’s a bit like driving 70 mile per hour into the fog. Sure you can do it. But why would you WANT to? Most insurance companies cover the cost of check-ups. And even if they don’t, what’s that old adage about “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure?” At age 86, sure my mother opted not to get treated. But at least she was empowered with all the information so she could make an informed decision. This is a bit like backing up your computer. We just have to be vigilant and do it, whether missionaries, ministers, or — regardless.

b) Get the right people in the room to advise you — My two brothers and I were taking turns caring for our 86-year-old mother. (She had always told us – if we “were tempted to take her to a nursing home, please take her over on the hill and put a bullet in her head.” Frankly, she would have rather died than entered one. Somehow, by God’s grace, she avoided it.) My wife and I happened to be the ones on duty as her body wound down. Things began to get a bit dicey. If I may speak forthrightly, she was entering a phase in which she was vomiting and her body was being tested in every way. Right away (hats off to her), the marketing director of the hospice company spotted the situation and brought in an incredibly-experienced and well-trained professional. She knew end-of-life signs AND treatment. In 20 minutes, they trained my wife and me to walk my mom through what might have been the most difficult hours of her entire 86 years. Thanks to their insights, those last 9 hours were as painless and peaceful as one could ever imagine. My mother was lucid yet pain-free. She talked openly about the situation and my wife and I knew exactly what to do. At the end of the day, I’m now convinced — nothing trumps training and experience. Death is not the time to experiment with interns. Thanks to the marketing director and the hospice company — and to the professional they brought to our living room.

c) Hope for miracles, but also prepare for a more sobering reality — So many believers were stopping my mother, sometimes in the aisles at Walmart, with well-intended admonitions like, “Sally, just believe!” They’d tell her, “Jesus can heal you of this if you have faith!” Please hear me well: My mom had a great attitude. But this whole scenario was confusing. I finally put together an article to try to help her sort it all out — and she indicated that it did. (Read the story at the bottom of the page here…

We won’t repeat everything here… so please read the article to see our suggestions about how to pray for the seriously ill.)

d) Prepare and talk openly and often about worst-case scenarios — When and why did conversations about death become so taboo? (Why would mother wait until just days before her death to tell me where I would find the key to her lock box? Come to find out, she had appointed me as executor and her personal representative. She did that all the way back in the year 2000, bless her heart. If she had passed away during those 13 years, I would have been clueless. (She had stored it in a VERY obscure location, by the way.) If we’ve prepared for it, what is death — other than transitioning to life eternal? My thoughts are — few things are more important. Let’s sort this stuff out today so we’re ready.

Do you have additional thoughts about preparing for the ultimate transition? Just click in the comment box following the web version of this item… and thanks for taking time to share your testimony.