Like a candle in the wind

She added, with some passion, “And it’s death! The casual vacancy, the casualness with which death comes down. You expect a fanfare, you expect some sort of pathos or grandeur to it. And, you know, the first big death I ever suffered was my mother’s, and it was that that was so shocking: just gone.”

JK Rawlings 2012


An infant’s steps, unsteady, indirect, supremely hesitant, are met with cheers of family and the deepest mother’s love. We respond to a child’s first words with joy and laughter. Gifts, wrapping and cake celebrate every birthday.

And so it goes. Our lives are marked with recognition and ceremony. But, the last steps of a man? That final crawl to bed or collapse on the floor? What greets those precious final moments, the closing memory, the last touch of earth? Perhaps, our great fear is that it will be met with silence.

The quote above, from a New Yorker interview by Ian Parker of the novelist JK Rawlings, was for me a revelation. The approach of the end of our lives, for many, is not tainted by the terror of death, but fear that we will finish life’s glory with banal indifference, without recognition of what we have seen, done and learned, and that we will simply vanish; a candle snuffed by a sudden callous wind.

Through life, we strive to mark the journey; Birthdays, graduations, holidays, awards, monuments, memoir, photographs, artistic creation, movies, lectures, writings, construction and endless conversation. We record our work, knowledge and loves. We desperately need our passing through this world to have meaning.

What is Facebook if not the ultimate crowd biography to note, immortalize and share every moment, no matter how routine or dull. ”I am here! I live! I roar! Do not forget me!”

Men and women fear a point in life when the thousands of sunsets, the fabulous meals, the books, the teachings, the travel and everything wondrous that has filled every moment, will be reduced to a bedpan, a soiled sheet, an empty corner, a handful of pills, a fluorescent ceiling and strangers to whom we are just a withered, wasted, foul body. We fear death without fanfare, without cheers or absent the love and respect of friends and family.

This is what we mean when we beg for final “dignity.” Yes, we want to be clean, mobile, alert and able to take care of ourselves. We want to be in our own home. We want to make our own decisions. Nonetheless, what we really want, as life ends, is to be valuable and human. To share the beauty of life and the memory of what we have done.

We want, one more time, to celebrate; to say and receive thanks; to laugh, cry, hug and share; to apologize; to teach and learn; to love. “God, it has been fabulous to be alive!”

The last steps of a man, unsteady, supremely hesitant, must be met with the deepest of respect and recognition. We must not vanish in a puff, but one more time feel warmth on the evening breeze. Rawlings is right; death comes too soon, and leaves a sudden absence, an emptiness. However, together perhaps, we can find closure in the final days of life, by celebrating the grandeur that it has been.



  • meyati
    We live through others. some have had great lives or great influence. Johann Kepler, the mathematician-astronomer is an example. A new planet was recently named after him. The 3 laws of planetary movement were developed by him and named after him. He was never allowed to look through a telescope, but he explained the so called retrograde of some planets. He was poorly paid. His wife left him and their many children. He was traveling back to his home with them in a cart. Two warring factions charged down to fight with each other. The Kepler family was destroyed, murdered. He was unemployed, didn't have a home. He was called a failure, yet everybody that takes Astronomy 101 learns his name, and his 3 laws that explain how our solar system works. No matter how simple our lives are, we all somehow contribute. Let's not forget them and remember the greatness of their smile.
  • Elllen Rand
    This post was a balm for me this morning, as it is exactly 15 years to the day since my Dad died, and much appreciated. My Dad was in and out of hospitals for the last 5 months of his life with what's usually called diabetic complications (including above-knee amputation and treatments to deal with complications after that), so it was hard to maintain any air of "normalcy," much less celebrate the twilight of his life. It was an eye-opening education about the medicalization of dying, which is the exact opposite of what we'd like to experience for our loved ones and ourselves.
  • Beautiful as always. My experience - haven't had time to worry about silent passing as I'm still worrying about the treatment I get from the medical world, like health workers who hate their jobs, before the end.
  • Beautifully put....long may our roars reverberate and may our ending be gentle
  • Bonnie Topper-Bricker
    Thank you..your post reminded me of a patient I cared for who was dying of prostate cancer. Before he was overwhelmed by his disease he was a very successful businessman, a nabob of industry. He dressed in beautiful suits, drove a large expensive car. He had many, many friends and was admired by all who met him. When I met him he was lying in bed in his underwear,alone and distraught. He called out to his daughter, "I am a martian." His daughter thought he was hallucinating. No, I said, he has lost his identity..he needs to be reminded who he is, we need to remind him..we need to celebrate him...Bonnie Topper-Bricker RN CHPN
  • Paula Kaplan-Reiss
    Beautifully said. If only we knew when we were going to die, we might go out differently. All of the other milestones in our life, we can plan for with great fanfare. I have been to many funerals where the eulogies were so beautiful, I only wished the deceased were alive to hear them!
  • Beautifully put. Thank you Dr Salwitz for your wisdom and compassion!
  • D Someya Reed
    Wouldn’t it, perhaps, be more wonderful if we all would share the beauty that is life “as we live it” rather than as we end it? What memories and dignity we would have inside each of us at life’s end if each of us were “to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived” and would take solace in that act? If we all did this, there would be no need to “beg” for dignity at end of life. No one would consider treating a dying person as a withered, wasted and foul body undeserving of one’s time. At least not in what might be called a “pay it forward” society. You see, for all the roaring we do to be remembered, history will get it wrong just as this quotation is wrongfully attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as a host of others. Nobody really remembers who wrote it, if indeed it was written by one person at all. Even the wording has been changed repeatedly over the years by those who would use it for their own purposes. This single sentence and the larger quotation, in practice, would allow even those with the harshest of lives to find dignity within themselves by as little as a single act, no matter how seemingly small, to help another “breathe easier.” Wouldn’t it be nice? My candle could snuff out tonight. I could be in pain. I could be alone. It won’t matter to me because I know what I have done and how hard I have fought. I know I will continue to fight even though I know I am outnumbered and there are those who will twist and misrepresent all I do as something (even they know) it is not. I will only ever have one request between now and the end of my life. I ask that I never be made to forget the one for whom I fought the hardest. I’m looking at you Alzheimer’s.

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