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Yale 62

Transitions: Hitting 80, the Coronavirus and Some Practical Suggestions

By Stephen W. Buck

Steve Susman’s death from the coronavirus after he heroically survived a very serious bike accident reinforced what I wrote about my 80th birthday – it was a great celebration and it made me feel old and vulnerable, particularly given the threat of the coronavirus hanging over us.

What to do about it?  In what follows I report on some books and questions that have helped me and perhaps could help classmates deal with transitions and the final transition.

The first thing I did was to discover a very useful book called “The Other Talk – A Guide to Talking with your Adult Children About the Rest of Your Life.” (The first talk, of course, being the bare 1-minute talking to your teenager about sex). Really practical it helps in organizing one’s affairs, particularly in having a conversation with your children about health, finances and other subjects that are often avoided. It left me very upbeat, particularly in seeing the many things I can do now rather than when it’s rather late.

Then I found Final Gifts, a book by two hospice nurses, available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. A good friend and Foreign Service colleague was dying of cancer and his three sons were having a terrible time – one was in total denial while another was highly emotional. Each threatened the other’s way of dealing with death.  Each chapter described different processes of reacting to impending death. I gave the book to each son and they soon realized that each could deal with it in their own way. Another helpful book is William Bridge’s “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes.

Also useful is best-seller writer and therapist Irvin Yalom’s “Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death.” It sounds like a dreary read but it’s not. Particularly for someone like me, who hopes for but has no idea whether there is an afterlife, the book led to a very comforting conclusion, that the answer to mortality is the immortality of the good things one can leave behind, particularly actions, however small, that have helped others. Another very good book is a best-seller by Thomas Moore, a former monk, university professor and psychotherapist – “Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy.”

Finally, I list some questions my men’s group recently discussed that helped me gain some clarity. While they were meant for a small group, they could be used just by oneself, or with a spouse or close friend. The questions led me to discover a lot. Perhaps they may for you.

1) Imagine an oncologist tells you that you have only six months to live.  How would you plan this time?  Be as specific as possible.

2) Imagine that you are observing your own funeral or memorial service.  What do you think people will say about you?  What do you hope that they will say about you?  Do you need to change anything in your life so that your friends and family will say things about you that you would like them to say?

We invite your comments.

5 comments to Transitions: Hitting 80, the coronavirus…

  • Cory Christopher T.

    A useful prod to continue a project I probably started at your gentle urging. Thanks.

  • Arnold Lopez-Cepero

    To have just now heard of Steve Sussman’s passing has struck me with profound sadness. While in my time at Yale I barely knew him, when I came back for the first reunion I ever attended (our 25th), he befriended me and over the years I had the opportunity to see him a number of times including when, a few years ago, he was honored by the University of Texas School of Law. I find it especially tragic that his calamitous biking accident should lead to his being exposed to and contracting COVID-19. He so loved biking particularly when he was leading his team of lawyerly bikers in MS-150 charity ride from Houston to Austin to raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis.

    If I had known of his passing in timely fashion, I too would have endeavored to attend the shiva held for him via ZOOM. Recently, I had a cousin who just passed too. Jewish faith services for him were observed and my wife Marcia and I participated in those via ZOOM as well. When shiva for him was held last night (July 29), I also thought of Steve at the time, saying the Mourner’s Kaddish for them both.

  • Charles Merlis

    Sorry to hear about Steve Susman. It is ironic, I had a bike accident and broke the neck of my femur near the end of February. A few days after my operation I went to a rehab facility and was making a good recovery when I went into uroseptic shock and was rushed to the ICU where an influx of antibiotics prevented my children and sister from inheriting the remnants of my dwindling and disorganized fortune. After a few days, I chose a new facility to restart my recovery. The place to which I did not return in the 6 weeks that followed had many Covid cases and over 12 deaths. I went home to continue my rehab about when Steve had his accident. I am very lucky. I am biking again and just starting to jog on the way to racing which is my real interest. By the time races start again, I may be able to beat slow younger runners again. Anyone else still racing at my age can probably beat me. Chris, you should be proud of Mitt Romney.

    • Steve Buck

      Belated thanks Charlie. WOW- broke your back and planning to run at age 80! I try to walk briskly 40-50 minutes every day that is not too hot. Let us know when you enter all those races.

  • Steve Buck

    Glad this was helpful Chris. Anything you do now will make things a lot easier later. While the subject can seem lugubrious, I found these books really helped me, comforted me and in some cases brought joy. Moving through fear and sadness, particularly in these troubled times, can mean arriving at a better place.