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Looking At Death and Dying Through Tuesdays With Morrie

Updated June 25, 2021
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Looking At Death and Dying Through Tuesdays With Morrie essay

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Book Summary

Tuesdays with Morrie is on the surface a reflective biography which examines the relationship between two men: the author, Mitch, and his dying professor, Morrie. However, it is not long before the realization sits in – much like life – there is much more to be seen than two men having a conversation about death and dying. More deeply there are lessons about what is important in life, forgiveness, giving, learning, holding on, and yes, in the end – letting go. There are no mistakes to be made, for even in the beginning it is evident Morrie succumbs to ALS – he is not saved. But, along the way he shares his wisdom and in a prolific way, he saves others if only they will listen to his wisdom in time.

The book begins describing Morrie as a spirited, strong and witty professor when Mitch was attending Brandeis University years ago (although you are told in the beginning he becomes ill). One of the first things learned of Morrie is his love of dance, something painfully he loses. Throughout the book we learn of the admiration Mitch, the student and author, has for this professor, although he allows several years to pass before contacting him.

He sees Professor Schwartz on an episode of Nightline by coincidence, (if one is to believe in such a thing after reading the book) although it would be easier to believe the universe was helping them to “find their way back”. When he learns of Morrie’s terminal diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a degenerative muscular disease, he reaches out to him to rekindle their friendship one last time.

Although they had a close relationship and after graduation there was hope they would stay in contact, Mitch’s life became busier and his career took over and he lapsed on his end of the “bargain”. However, a perfect storm is happening in Mitch’s life where his job is seemingly collapsing, and it gives him the freedom to visit Morrie in Massachusetts, and he begins to visit frequently.

They discuss many things which are chronicled in beautiful detail and throughout the journey, Mitch becomes an apprentice to what he never could have learned in the classroom. One of the most important lessons helps him to repair the relationship with his brother who has cancer; in the end they remain distanced, but have contact.

Morrie’s words, “Love is when you are as concerned about someone else’s situation as you are about your own. (Albom 2007, p.178)” helped him to realize his brothers needs for him to back off a bit were necessary to restore the balance between them. Another lesson was to focus more on the time with others than the money and the “things” he had been so focused on gaining.

In the end, however, Morrie and Mitch run out of time, and days after his last visit, Morrie dies – but not before Morrie tells Mitch that he loves him. Simple words from a man who truly reveled in simple things, who wished if he had 24 healthy hours would spend them simply with friends. Yet in all his unadorned actions, it meant so much and signified so much about how Morrie had aged through his illness to view things, almost as if his life were an “old-age-style” of its own.

Developmental Issues

This “old-age-style” (Whitborne, 2014, p 287) theme in “Tuesdays with Morrie” was exemplified in how simply Morrie lived toward the end; his live contained mostly in his study with his loved ones, a blanket, and the hibiscus plant. While this concept is typically applied to works of art, Morrie would appreciate his life being considered a work of art. In older life, those who become aged tend to become simplified yet more emotionally reactive – truly this can be said of Morrie’s words of wisdom.

Wisdom is another concept identified; whether he could recite the “Gettysburg Address” or if he knew the quadratic equation is unknown, but he had wisdom. This is a different type of intelligence, gained from experiences and appreciation of how their journey has shaped them as people rather than merely memorization of facts and figures. Throughout the book, Mitch gained this knowledge, this wisdom from Morrie: a gift which he passed onto him, part of his legacy of sorts.

Erik Erickson would have placed Morrie into the ego integrity stage of his Psychosocial Theory, where he is concerned with accepting not only his past, but the inevitability of death. The fact that he is dying from a debilitating disease (a terminal phase death trajectory) and passes at an earlier age than he likely would had he not had ALS, shows age is not a determining factor in the Psychosocial Theory.

One major thing he wants to accomplish, thus is the purpose of the book, is to ensure his story lives on – not as a way of memorializing him – but as a way of touching others and making a difference in their lives. For this is how Morrie has seemingly always been: a giving and caring person, even while working in mental health clinics; making connections with those believed to be detached from others. His compassion shows through to his children as well, thus continuing to show generativity – a stage he had passed through.

Staying with Erikson’s theory, Mitch now becomes concerned with identity achievement versus identity diffusion which Erickson’s theory places in the beginning of adolescence. But, for so much of his life, Mitch has placed his emphasis on chasing his career and making money, gaining the things to make him happy. After spending time with Morrie, he begins to reevaluate what things really matter to him or which should matter to him.

Throughout the conversations it seems as though there is a change in Mitch’s perspective as he examines his priorities. One major change he makes is in how he interacts with his brother. Advice Morrie gives him is to give his brother, Peter, space because it may be what he needs and in the end, this is what brings him back to him. Though we never hear things from Peter’s point of view, he there was something he needed in that emotional distance to help him cope with cancer: his own terminal illness.

People often cope by using defense mechanisms, and George Vaillant’s Theory of Defense Mechanisms gives some insight into the diverse ways Morrie and Mitch dealt with the uncomfortable, yet undeniable event: death. Mitch talks about his brother’s cancer diagnosis and each and every time he does not get the reaction from his brother he desires he delves back into his work.

For example, when he called Peter and he would not return his call, he took that as his brother slighting him. This would be an example of repression, a neurotic type of defense mechanism according to Vaillant. You see, Mitch would try to forget this event was occurring; by working so much he could keep his mind busy and not think about his brother far away, not think about the crumbling relationship, not think about the guilt of his brother being ill rather than him, not think about the cancer.

By contrast, Morrie was an example of someone who used mature categories of defense mechanisms. His altruism is shown in the way he helped Mitch and others in using his dying journey to reflect on the positives in his life and sharing the experience. Additionally, he was able to use humor in even the most unpleasant circumstances, for example, the references to toileting and the stories he shared often had overtones of light humor sprinkled throughout. He even used sublimation in conducting his own funeral while he was still “around” to appreciate it.

Along these same lines, it could be said Peter used both defense mechanisms even though we never heard from him directly. By distancing himself it could be he was also repressing his feelings or even acting out – Mitch had recounted having a relationship with his brother which was not close, and he had always felt Peter was the favored and reckless sibling. But, Peter could have felt since Mitch was the ‘good’ child he was being punished and, so he was in turn intentionally destroying the one thing he knew Mitch wanted: the relationship. So, out of anger he retaliated.

This would have been categorized as an immature mechanism (acting out), however it would also appear by the end he may have made his own changes and evolved to using a mature mechanism: humor. Mitch tells of a message sent to him from Peter, to which he says he “laughed until there were tears in my eyes” (p 191) and this was part of the beginning of the repair of the relationship as the two brothers found their way back to each other.

Personal Development

Tuesdays with Morrie was somewhat impactful, but mostly sobering and reflective. In most aspects I identified with Mitch, although I wish I could be more like Morrie – obviously except for the terminal illness part. However, there is an old saying that from the moment we are born we begin to die and that is true; life is here as we know it is finite…no one gets out of here alive, regardless of which religion one chooses to follow. At some point there is a biological cessation where the heart and the breathing ceases. As I reflect on the book on Morrie as he counted his breaths to test how close he was to “the end”, in a way we all have counted breaths.

Like Mitch I have watched much of my life race by, often going through the motions, and perhaps placing more emphasis on the destination than the journey. I know that was the case until only a few years ago when I began to focus on being closer to my family, leaving a career in Omaha to come back to Kearney to care for my aging father. Some of the comforts left behind cause uneasiness at times, even burdensome, but the early times I spent with my father are irreplaceable, much like those Mitch spent with Morrie.

The first description of Morrie dancing sparked an image of my father. Small framed, dark hair, pronounced eyebrows, particularly the white t-shirt and black sweatpants with arms flailing in the air. Though my father didn’t even actually dance at my wedding, he would often ‘goof off’ in a dancing manner and this image simultaneously made my stomach sink and brought a smile to my face.

Unlike Morrie though, my father’s disease ravaged his mind and our final months were not spent in meaningful conversation or in moments of words of “I love you” and closure. He fell in September 2015 and was in a nursing home ‘recovering’ when he got pneumonia in October and we were told he would not live after being removed from life support. After rushing back from Phoenix (he was stable when we left), he did recover but was never quite the same.

Months passed but he became conscious and even remembered who we were but never fully understood why he couldn’t go “home”. Though I drove to visit him 4 times a week, there were many days his dementia-laden mind excluded me as a loved one and I would leave emptier than I came, but I knew I wasn’t always there for me, because as far as family I was mostly it. And I am glad, because I didn’t ever intend for him to be ‘invisible’, left alone in a nursing home.

When the final downward slope of his demise came it in late June 2016, was caused by an “aspiration” of vomit. Apparently common from those suffering from Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t understand until days passed that he wouldn’t get better this time and that the life-support technology would fail this time. It became clear the machines could keep him breathing for years, but talking would be gone, and the light in his eyes had long since clouded.

The biology of life maybe could have continued, but the meaning to him would not have and that was the importance. And somewhere, I knew he would be more at peace…and I think this is something which I did find in the book. There was one line which struck me, and I remember reading it a few times and found comfort in it, because at times my soul is tortured at decisions I had to make. “Don’t let go too soon, but don’t hang on too long.”, and for me that has some importance.

As to the satisfaction with the direction my life has taken so far, how can I not be satisfied? I wouldn’t know any other way. If one small thing were different, things could have been entirely different, and that’s a chance I just couldn’t take. I know going forward I want to try to make more of a difference. I used to volunteer more, and I hadn’t been doing that as much and I want to begin doing that again. My loved ones know how much they mean to me, I feel I am doing that right. There are times where I do not always push as much as I could, and I forget time passes by more quickly.

However, I feel I have always put my child first and I have a tough time saying that is a mistake; although professionally I need to reel that in – and maybe for his own self-reliance sake also. Finally, knowing Alzheimer’s risks are higher for women and there may be a genetic component, and both my father and grandfather had the diagnosis, I have made my wishes known so my loved ones do not have to make difficult decisions without any directions. As a counselor, or student affairs professional I can take away from this to make the relationship matter and to make the moments count.

Reading Tuesdays with Morrie did inspire me to do more with the time I have and to make the most of the health I have. Forgiving yourself was a theme discussed and this is something perhaps is more difficult than it needs to be. This was a difficult subject to approach, as is death in general – likely because it is something we all face at some point. However, talking about it (or reading about it) is one way to address the subject and make it more socially acceptable and not so anxiety-laden, and perhaps helpful.

References

  1. Albom, Mitch. (2007). Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
  2. Whitbourne, S.K., & Whitbourne, S.B. (2014) Adult Development & Aging: Biopsychosocial Perspectives (5th ed.). U.S.A: Wiley
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