Illness, loss and words of comfort

New York Times Personal Health writer Jane Brody last week noted another chapter in the wrenching drama she has shared with readers, first with the cancer diagnosis of her husband, lyricist Richard Engquist, and later following his death on March 18. In the new essay Brody tells of condolences received from friends and strangers. The writing, she says, has been therapeutic.

But one piece of therapy I never expected was the feedback from readers, friends and acquaintances: many hundreds of condolence letters, e-mail messages and comments on The New York Times’s Well blog.

Whether in a card, note, letter, phone message, hug or pat on the shoulder, some people seem to know instinctively how to show they care and will remember the deceased. What stands out most in these messages is their deeply personal quality. People who knew my husband in various walks of life (especially his advocacy for his beloved Prospect Park and his career as a writer for the musical theater) saw him in ways that had escaped me, because I was too close to have their perspective. By sharing these details, they have rounded out my memories of a life shared and separate from his — memories I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Brody gives examples of the many messages about her husband that brought comfort, and offers thanks for the fact that those unwanted messages — “Surely you’ll meet someone else;” “I know how you feel, my dog died last year” — had not arrived.

There’s one thing often of great comfort to someone who’s suffered a loss that Brody doesn’t include and that doesn’t occur to everyone. It’s the reminder of what the survivor meant to the now-deceased, one of the easiest ways to write a quick, meaningful condolence note. I learned it many years ago from someone I never met. Her Army officer brother, to whom I’d been pinned (an emblem of commitment in those olden days; I’ve no idea if such customs still exist) was killed in Korea. I could not travel across the country for the funeral, all of the sympathy and support was rightfully going to his family, but I felt bereft and unconsoled. Then I got a two-line note. “Dave said you could always make him smile,” she wrote; “and that will always make us smile.”

Thoughtful people have reinforced the knowledge of how much such a thought can mean. “Your mother was so proud of you because —.” Happily, in this fast-moving world the snail-mail sympathy note seems to survive. And I suppose even the e-mail condolence is better than nothing. If you’re stumped for a note you could be writing, try it this way.

Facing Up to Dental Terrors

The only thing worse than toothache/jaw pain, to be cruelly specific, is toothache/jaw pain without insurance. Most of us are without such insurance. It has not even been on the radar of health reform advocates, which is just as well — if you add dental terrorism to abortion and public options we won’t see reform for another few decades.

Nevertheless, tooth reform, euphemistically referred to as full mouth restoration in some circles, is ahead for increasing numbers of Americans sooner or later. It comes down roughly to a choice between fixing the mouth or buying a yacht, but if your jaw aches, you forgo the yacht.

New York Times health writer Jane Brody traced the new path of dental repair journeys in a thoughtful article yesterday, explaining her own costly route from tooth decay to bridges to implants, and throwing out an estimate of approximately $3,500 to $4,000 per tooth for the now-preferred latter. Multiply this by at least three or four times if you have other issues, which most of us do once things start going south in the mouth, needing attention. That would be gum problems, repair to surrounding teeth or necessary attention to bone.

I write with authority. Some years ago, facing all of the above, I visited an assortment of dentists with an assortment of solutions that frequently had me in tears when contemplating the time, details (one would have had screws in my jawbone which I would tighten every few days for months as it rebuilt itself) and costs. Like Brody, I grew up before the days of fluoridated water and have had more repair work since childhood than the Bay Bridge. It was a mess in there.

Finally my husband, whose best wives have been born in 1933 but with bad teeth, said, “Just do it all. Don’t be going patch-patch-patch; do it all.” I proceeded to choose the most sympathetic and understandable (most of them were, except for the screws-in-the-jaw guy) dental professionals, assembled a team and went to work. Or rather, I scrinched my eyes shut while they went to work. Some 18 months and $40,000 later we were free at last.

(Out of this experience, during which I was doing a great deal of entertaining just to keep us happy and sane, came one of my finer unpublished books, Cooking for the Dentally Impaired: Recipes and Menu Suggestions for the Impaired and Unimpaired in Difficult Times. I think it’s a book whose time has come; my agent disagrees.)

Brody’s article is a must-read for anyone stewing over this issue. The following are abbreviated tips for anyone with teeth and plans to keep them:

1 – Consider early-decision. The sooner things like gum surgery, crowns, implants-v-bridges or bone issues are dealt with, the likelier all can be made well and kept that way.

2 – Get second opinions. You may even choose the screw-in-the-jaw route, but there are many different procedures and it is good to find one suited to your temperament and bank account.

3 – Ask questions. I asked so many that I was fired by one team; a polite letter said they did not believe they should take my case. It’s just as well. Those I wound up with answered my questions and seemed happy to do so.

4 – Ask for references. Brody suggests this, and I agree. Because I already knew several people who had been patients of the dentists with whom I eventually invested all that time and money, talking with them about their experiences helped keep me from any surprises.

5 – Talk finances. Several friends of mine have had major dental expenses that were far outside their budget, but worked out payment schedules with their dentists so that necessary work could be done sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile: floss.