To know, or not to know


Nothing more beautiful than snow on the mountains in Colorado.

Several years ago a good friend of mine, Robert, had a terrible brain tumor. He knew what was happening in the beginning, and knew what he had and what was wrong with him. As time wore on though, he lost much of his short-term memory, and eventually middle term memory. As long as he knew you from years past, he recognized you. When Roy and I went to visit him in the hospital, he knew us. But when Andrew joined us, Robert did not know or recognize him, although he was there visiting him just a few weeks before. Robert slowly declined as the tumor grew, and he really did not question why he was in the hospital, or what was wrong with him. He could hold a conversation with you, and talk about life, and he always seemed happy. He didn’t know how sick he was, and never questioned the tests or the radiation treatments. He eventually went home, and passed away in the shower a few months later – never knowing what was going on with his health.  Never knowing that he was so close to death for so long.

Was he lucky? I don’t know. He was dying for well over a year, and he was never sad. He never cried about it, he never thought about what he was going to miss out on in life. He didn’t cry over not getting married, or having kids, or traveling the world. He was just happy all the time, all the way to the end. He had no idea he was ill, and had no idea his days were severely limited. He was just living his life.

Is this better than knowing?

Another lifelong friend of mine, Karen, also had a brain tumor that slowly took her life over the course of several years. But she knew it from the very beginning. She looked into the eyes of her two young girls and knew she would never see them grow into lovely young women. She knew she would never see them graduate high school, go off to college, and one day get married. When I visited her we talked about life and the past. She was bed ridden for months as her body slowly deteriorated over time, and she cried. She talked to her mom and to her sister and friends to make sure that her daughters were taken care of. She was so concerned for their well being, and she wanted to make sure they had a great life – even without her in it. She wanted to make sure they went apple picking and visited Disney World. She wanted them to know all about her. Dee and I saw here a couple of days before she passed, and we talked all night with her. She knew the end was so near, she faded in and out of consciousness, but wanted to tie up so many loose ends with so many people. Her body was getting more frail by the day, but she brought out that smile and laugh every time her daughters were there.

I can only imagine what she went through those last months. What would anyone go through knowing that they are going to die soon? We all know we are going to die, and it is a part of life. But we don’t know when, and we all hope it is far, far away. We don’t prepare for it mentally, we don’t prepare for it spiritually, and we don’t talk about it. It just happens one day, for most of us.

But those of us who know they are going to leave us soon, either from cancer, or a tumor, or whatever terrible cause, what do they do? It is terrible that they are going to die, but is it a blessing that they have time? They can talk to those they love and tell them everything they want to. They can tell them stories of the past, they can tell them things they never did before. In some cases they can make peace with relatives long forgotten, and bring back family into their lives. They have time to make things right, they have time. Maybe a few days or weeks, or months, but they have time to repair the past, they have time to make amends.

Or is it a curse? Knowing your days are so numbered. Knowing you will not live your life out, you won’t grow old. Living with the stress that every day you wake up you are that much closer to the end. Going for the tests and hearing the dreaded results day after day, week after week. Watching your body as the disease slowly kills you.

Some parents who have enough time have made video-tapes for their kids to listen to. Some have written long journals to leave behind. They know they are leaving and they want to be remembered, so they do whatever they can to leave something meaningful behind. They want to leave some sort of legacy, some proof they were here on this earth and made a difference.

But as I said before – how can they mentally handle knowing that they are dying? It must be such a burden, such an unnatural thought, something that our brains were never designed for. People can really only relate to something they know, and this is something that not many of us can really comprehend – knowing our days are so limited and so finite.

Andrew was in the first group – he never knew. He never knew he was going to die so young. He never knew he would not make it to graduate college, or get married and have a family. He didn’t know how finite his days were. He made himself sushi for dinner, he watched TV, called to say goodnight to Dorothy and me, and then he just went to sleep. That was it. He passed very quietly and peacefully in the middle of the night, not knowing what he has missed out in life. Not knowing anything.

DSC00359He never let me know what to do with his car, or what to do with his snowboard – who should get it. He left his valuables just lying around in his room. His phone was charging, his computer was left on, his laptop was downloading music and videos. He had no reason to think he would not be with us in the morning. It was to be his first day of class, he bought all his books, he got his notebook ready, he even wrote in his calendar “First Day of Classes.” He didn’t know.

As I look back on this, and as I learn more about grief and suffering and pain, I am almost thankful for the way he passed – not that he passed, but the manner in which he was taken from us. Andrew was a fragile soul. He was a kind, gentle human being. He thought things out to such detail, and always questioned everything, in a positive way. He had compassion for anyone and everyone he met. He had no hate, no fear, no animosity in his life. He was happy every day – but he did not handle stress well. He loved everyone he knew, and always helped others. He had no enemies. His coaches always told us that no one ever disliked Andrew, His teachers welcomed him into their closed classrooms for lunch, just to sit and eat and listen to him talk about life. He loved to listen to others as well.

I know he never had the chance to say goodbye. He never got the chance to tell us things I am sure he was holding inside. But I am okay with that.


There is just something so peaceful about this picture of Andrew.

He never had to look into our eyes and say goodbye to his mother, his sister and me. He never had to tell us those things that bothered him. He never had to hold his beloved pets and say goodbye to them, knowing he would never see them again. That would have hurt me so much more. The pain that would have caused him would have been so much, I would not have been able to bear it. And I do not think he would have been able to handle that either.

So the question is – is it better to know and have the ability to make peace, but live with the knowledge the end is near? Or is it better to just lie down and pass – oblivious to the fact that your life as we know it is about to end?

So tell me – are you thankful for the way your close ones passed? Are you at peace with the way they were taken? Or would you have liked it some other way? Of course we would all have liked it not to happen, that is a given. But it did happen to us, and we are left here to think about it for the rest of our lives.




4 thoughts on “To know, or not to know

  1. Sally

    Perry, you wrote “…People can really only relate to something they know, and this is something that not many of us can really comprehend – knowing our days are so limited and so finite.” but in reality, every single person knows and has to cope with the unavoidable fact that deep down we all know that our days are limited and finite. I know Jill would have been extremely stressed if she really knew she was in the the process of dying, so I consider it a blessing she went peacefully in her sleep and you seem to hint that this may be the case with Andrew as well. I personally hope I also pass peacefully in my sleep but we really do not have a choice. At we can take comfort that our beloved kids are waiting for us on the other side now!

  2. Maria

    My Dad died of a heart attack, my husband an automobile accident within 3 years of each other and way tooooo young. My husbands remains were so bad, I never got to say goodbye or have any closer. It really messed with my head. But, even after 15 years, I wonder the same thing, “which way is better”?. In the end does it matter? We have no control over any of it. The living need to find an inner peace, keep the memories alive and embrace the wonderful times we had with our loved ones. We must live life to its fullest. Enjoy it because it passes quickly and look forward to knowing we will be with them soon enough. …I can not image your loss, but may the wonderful memories help you find peace. Happy Holidays Perry.

  3. Ned

    Perry, thank you for the insight in this piece. As an older person with children and grandchildren I think it is better to know that I am dying rather than go quickly. Hopefully the knowledge would both awaken me to the most important things about life and give me the opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings with those I love.

  4. Leslie Hutton

    Perry…I think it depends on the person. My brother knew for 25 yrs that his days were numbered. He had been dx with Aids in the late 80’s . Back then people who had it were told to get everything in order because they were lucky if they had 6months. How he made it as long as he did, who knows. In many ways it was good for him because he was able to live his life in a way I don’t think he would have. He was very matter of fact about it. Although I do have point out that he never bothered to get his affairs in order. Beth on the other had passed suddenly. While she may have realized what was happening in the final moments, there wasn’t anything she could do at that point. I am sure in that moment she was upset that she couldn’t have done anything, she would have wanted to say goodbye to us all and left guidance in the form of a notebook for her little brother. I guess everyone is different. I don’t look at it as a burden. We all know that our time on earth is limited and yet many live as if there is always going to be a tomorrow. I could probably write a whole essay on this topic but I wont. To answer the original question-I would prefer to know


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