“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” – Verlena Collentine, 2017
Reflecting on Verlena’s life for the last time publicly, I particularly note two things, aside from the incredible generosity, strength, courage and grace she had right up until the end.
She had a good death, if there is such a thing. She had just seen all three of her kids a few days before, had talked to them 40 minutes before her death, was only in severe pain for a few hours and was with three of her best friends when she died. I feel she was at peace, she had accomplished what she had wanted at the end of life (except for writing her obituary!) and died like she lived, surrounded by love and laughter. What more could anyone ask?
She had prepared well for her death. Things were in order, and she had used these past three months without medical intervention to finish up things important to her. All her kids were with her only four days before and she felt as complete with them as one could feel. Her three dear friends were with her at her bedside, and they tell me there was more laughter than tears at the end. There was even a toast to the beautiful woman!
She had a very close relationship with her hospice people, felt extremely supported by them and trusted them completely. Their care was very important to her and the whole process very smooth. Her dear friend, who is a nurse and was with her at the end, told me people should connect with hospice care earlier rather than later to really benefit from all they do. Most people wait too long.
The second thing that strikes me is that she had the most incredible friends, who supported her wholeheartedly during these last three years. They were there for the doctor’s visits, the chemo illnesses, the food and the care, but also for the fun, the good times, the little get-aways and the sharing of what was important with so much love. These people were and still are treasures.
They had formed a “committee” during these years, where each person was responsible for something – food, driving, personal care, doctor visit support, etc. But also, there were so many laughs with Verlena, silly times, overnights together, a “happy friend’s day,” they were even asked to leave a restaurant once because they were so noisy. Her friends felt she really blossomed during the years she was in Durango and became more independent, and they were a big part of this.
But Verlena also gave so much to them. They feel a sense of comfort with her death because she so easily talked about it and was so open and honest. She gave them the gift of letting them care for her, which opened their hearts. She was all of their confidant, giving great advice (even about senior dating!) right up until her death.
She also left a more spiritual inheritance for all of us. We are all better from knowing Verlena and being her students in the art of dying. Her legacy lives on with all its polarity, both the sorrow and the joy. She taught me about the beauty of my ordinary life. Her life stands as a testament to the fact that meaning and purpose comes not from accomplishing great things in the world but simply from loving those who are right in front of us, doing all we can with what we have, in the time we have, in the place we are now.
Death can guide us gently back toward life. The sorrow resolves over time into an intimate, useful sadness that can deepen our capacity for tenderness, for love.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.