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Beauty at the Deathbed

Posted by Dr. Suzanne Koven  November 3, 2011 03:03 PM

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wasington_deathbed.jpgI've been thinking about why I found this eulogy, which Steve Jobs's sister read at his recent memorial service, so moving. No doubt, the story of this close sibling relationship is extraordinary: Jobs and his biological sister, novelist Mona Simpson, didn't meet until they were in their 20s. And Simpson's intimate and affectionate portrayal of the Apple founder--the billionaire genius who rarely wore anything but jeans and black cotton turtlenecks and tucked scraps of favorite poems in his pockets--is touching. But it is the end of the eulogy, Simpson's account of Jobs's death, that I can't shake from my mind.

It's unusual for a eulogist to dwell on the actual death of his or her subject. Memorial services, I've noticed lately, are often called "celebrations of life"--as if the fact of death were best left unacknowledged. Maybe it is thought too painful, too morbid, or even in bad taste. We do seem to live in a culture of "death denial," about which I've written before.

But, as was apparently the case with Steve Jobs, the deathbed can be a positive place, full of love, clarity, and--to use that currently overused word--presence. At the deathbed, time often slows down, making every word and every breath count, emotions crystallize. Sometimes in the face of that most incomprehensible force, everything can make perfect sense.

I've seen it again and again: at hospital deathbeds and, especially, in home or inpatient hospice. Not everyone believes in an afterlife, and not every dying person or family, exclaims "Oh Wow, Oh Wow, Oh Wow" as Steve Jobs did. But many feel the awe, and even joy, that those words evoke.

I remember my first death. I was a medical student, and I'd never seen anyone die, never even known anyone who'd died. Her name was Mary, and she had no family. Her cancer had spread and she had elected no further treatment. She wasn't the friendliest person, the nurses told me. So I was a little apprehensive when I went in to check on her as I'd been ordered to do. It was late at night, and the ward was quiet. As I approached her bed, Mary turned to me and said, "Please sit down...and hold my hand." I did. Then she closed her eyes, smiled, and stopped breathing.

It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

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About the author

Suzanne Koven, M.D. practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She writes a monthly column for the Globe's G Health section and her essays have appeared in the More »


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