Austinite Barbara Frandsen decided a couple of years ago to put into a book the stories that she would love to tell her two oldest grandsons, now in their 20s. At the time, they were telling her they didn’t want to hear another one of her stories, but she had so many more she wanted to share.
"Someday they will want to hear them, and I won’t be here anymore," she says.
Frandsen, 80, instead wrote a book with stories she wanted to tell that surrounded one topic: death. "Dignity in Death: Accepting, Assisting, and Preparing for the End of Life" ($19.95, Atlantic Publishing Group) includes a lifetime of stories.
Frandsen is retired from preparing future teachers at St. Edward’s University and has written several books previously on teaching kids how to read. She also has a blog called Education With Grandma.
In "Dignity in Death," Frandsen separates the book into three acts. Act One is about the death of her mother from cancer when she was a child and the conversations she wishes adults would have had with her. Act Two is about the death of her son-in-law, also from cancer, and what being his caregiver was like. Act Three is focused on preparing for her own death and the decisions she has made.
"I wish my dad and my mother and the family had been more upfront," she says in Act One.
Instead, her father fought the reality of what was happening to his wife, taking her from hospital to hospital in Texas to try to find a cure, including radiation, which was in its early uses in 1947.
The message she received from her mother was that she needed to be the helper to her grandmother, who was now caring for young Barbara. From her father, the message was that they were going to find a cure, rather than the reality that was happening before them.
From her son-in-law’s experience in Act Two, she learned the importance of getting help from professionals such as death doulas or hospice nurses. As her son, who had his own experience with cancer, told her, "Mom, you can hold the person’s hand or you can hold the urinal, but you should not try to do both."
Her son-in-law died holding her hand, even though he held out hope for so long that he was going beat the cancer. "My puzzlement was why would anyone fight so hard when it was terribly painful," she says about his death.
"We can applaud the person who fights for every moment of life, but it's also courageous to say, ‘This is it,’ and be thankful for all I have."
Because of Brian, Frandsen changed her mind about the way she wants to die. She had always thought that she wanted to die at home, but after taking care of Brian, she realized she doesn’t want to leave her children with the mess of what comes after. Now she tells them, "Whatever we have to pay, take me someplace" that deals with dying to spare them from the aftermath.
Frandsen offers a guide in the form of a timeline of what is happening in the body as it gets closer to death.
Act Three is Frandsen’s way of making all the decisions that need to be made before she goes. She talks about wills and trusts, advance care directives, different funeral choices and options for what to do with the body.
She writes about creating legacies. Frandsen has taped the stories of important objects in her house to them, such as a story of a picture her mother painted. The details about it are taped to the back.
Thinking through the various options of her own death, the ceremony surrounding it and the sorting out all of her life’s stuff has made Frandsen more comfortable with it in the end. "I’ve given up the fear," she says. "I don’t want to suffer, but I’m not afraid of going."
She’s hoping that the readers of this book also will give up the fear and that it will help them make a plan and talk to their loved ones about death.
"Death can be a terror, or it can be viewed as an adventure," she says. "If people feel afraid, maybe they can be helped by reading the book."