We have more in common than we think. Rich or poor. Young or old. Democrat or Republican. Citizen or non-citizen. The common thread that unites us all is our human dignity.
That dignity is inherent in every person, regardless of social status or privilege. We just experienced the grandeur of the state funeral of President George H.W. Bush. While it’s true that most of us will not have flags lowered on our behalf, there are some great lessons to be learned and acted upon.
Like any family, we learn from those who precede us. One generation shows another how to live, work, overcome challenges; and, yes, how to age and approach the end of life. In this way, President Bush was a great example. His unmatched service to our nation aside, just look at what he taught us in the years after his presidency.
He was purposeful, joyful, intentional, and adventurous: Who can forget the images of President Bush parachuting out of a plane, at the age of 90! He stayed active, vibrant, and involved in things he enjoyed and with the people he loved. May we do the same.
He loved and was loved back: Because the Bush family lived their life so publicly, we had the opportunity to glimpse into their family life. His sons, President George W. Bush and Governor Jeb Bush, particularly and repeatedly paid tribute to their father. The love of a son for a father is strong, and it is good to see. Even President George W. Bush’s last words to his father, “I love you,” and the response, “I love you too,” left nothing unsaid. May we do the same.
He planned: We know that all former presidents have a plan in place for their passing. There are so many logistics to coordinate for a national memorial service that it cannot be left to chance or decisions made on the fly. We do not all plan state funerals in our families, but we can give thought to how we would want to live our last days: Would we want to be at home? To have family or friends with us? To have music played? To have religious or spiritual rituals? To be remembered in a memorial service? We hear that Ronan Tynan not only sang at the funeral service, but he was also at the President’s bedside and sang Silent Night on the last evening of his life. We may not all be graced with a virtuoso singing in our room, but we can tell our families what music we appreciate. If Ronan Tynan isn’t available, there’s always a Spotify playlist. The Bush family knew what their father would want, something as simple as music, and they provided it at the perfect moment. May we do the same.
He retained autonomy: According to news reports, he wanted to remain in his home rather than spend the final days in a hospital. This was likely due to the family talking in advance and knowing what the President would have wanted. Since he was still of sound mind, however, they did not go about making decisions for him without him. Too often today, we make assumptions that our elders are so out of it that they can’t make their own decisions. Sometimes that is true and we need to act on their behalf and in their interest. But let’s not forget that these wise souls can still make decisions for themselves. President Bush maintained his autonomy to the end. May we do the same.
He was accompanied: President Bush was not alone. He had the love and support of not only his large family, but also his close friends. Former Secretary of State James Baker, a friend of more than six decades visited regularly and was at the bedside of his friend on the day of his passing. For some people, the fear of being alone at the end is their greatest concern. President Bush’s family and friends stood by the side of the man they knew and loved. May we do the same.
He united: We saw the images of the state funeral with our nation’s political leaders of all stripes united under the dome of the Capitol and the spire of the National Cathedral to pay tribute to President Bush. Few other things could accomplish such a feat. Even when it came to what could have been the awkward question about the role of the current President in the funeral service, President Bush made his wishes clear. How many people in that Cathedral were at odds with each other politically and personally? Is that much different than many of our own families? In this instance, we pulled together as a nation. We united. Love was expressed. Forgiveness granted. Space made for the differences that sometimes divide us, but should never conquer us. May we do the same.
He was dignified: Beyond the pomp and circumstance, President Bush lived and died with dignity. He lived a life of purpose. He lived in a way the resembled the great dignity with which he was endowed by his Creator, in the ways he served, loved, forgave, and united. May we do the same.
Yes, President Bush set a good and inspiring example for us. Those looking for a simple next step can start with Five Wishes. It’s an easy way for you and your family to make important decisions and talk about what matters most to you. We may not all be able to jump out of planes in our nineties – or have Ronan Tynan sing at our bedside – but we can tell our families and friends what is important to us. Some things are too important to leave to chance.
All indications are that President Bush left nothing to chance. In doing so, he gave our whole nation one final lesson. The end matters. How we approach the end of our lives, how our family experiences our passing, and how we will be remembered are not afterthoughts. In these moments are hidden the virtues of life. Meaning and purpose are revealed, if we do it right. He did it right. May we do the same.
(Paul Malley is President of Aging with Dignity, a national nonprofit organization based in Tallahassee, Fla.)