Public Health

When a parent dies

October 21, 2014

My father’s passing

Last week, my 93-year-old father, Irving Rimer, (and father of Liz and Sara) died after a brief illness, peacefully, as he had wished, without extraordinary measures. All of us were present, and his ease in passing was possible because of a compassionate medical team at UNC Hospital that listened as Irving Rimer spoke compellingly about his life, preferences and values. When it became clear that his condition could not be treated surgically, and that nothing could be done to restore him to his prior health status, he decided, and we agreed, that the end was at hand. We were grateful to be together, and that amazing medical professionals supported our father’s last few days. They provided palliative care that allowed our father the dignity and comfort he had wanted in those last hours without being transferred to another facility.


The team’s care was a gift for our father and the family, and such care may be increasingly rare in this country, where there is often a desire by medical staff and family members to “just try one more thing.” Medicare data show how much intervention often occurs in the last month of a person’s life, when last-ditch medical treatments may be layered on top of each other. These measures often do not save lives and may diminish quality of life, adding cost without value.

In the end, if we live long enough, we all will suffer the same terminal illness—Aging. For many families, last days spent with family members close by, in earnest communication of memories, wishes and hopes for survivors may be replaced by feeding tubes, fruitless attempts at revival, surgery, and accumulating medical bills, all forestalling the inevitable, unavoidable end. This is not what most people want, but it may be what they get if the foundation has not been laid for a different trajectory.

Our father achieved the dignified, gentle death he wanted, in part because he was fortunate in his last illness, and partly because he’d taken the necessary legal steps to specify his wishes, and then repeated those wishes clearly and directly to every medical person with whom he interacted. As a family, we’d talked openly about death and our preferences, without putting these blunt talks off for another day. We’d signed the forms. Having done all that, one can go about the business of living fully until the last moment of life.

A life well-lived

psychedlic poster

New anti-smoking ads debut, 1970s

Irving Rimer meets with President Ronald Reagan

Irving Rimer meets with President Ronald Reagan

I’m proud of the person Irving Rimer was—the child of two Lithuanian immigrants he described as barely literate, whose father worked from sun-up to sun-down and struggled through the depression as a small- business owner who never had much material wealth.

A medic in World War II, Irving was awarded the Silver Star for bravery. He went to graduate school at Boston University, where he met Joan Rimer in class. Together, they went to Chicago where he completed his master’s in social work and public relations at the University of Chicago. In a more than 30-year career at the American Cancer Society (ACS), he helped to create a new genre of communication—hard-hitting, emotionally gripping public service announcements about the dangers of smoking that are credited with helping to reduce smoking rates from an all-time high in the 1950s to be

irving_rimerlow 20 percent overall today. The PSAs, which reflected his collaborations with some of the most talented ad agencies in the U.S., garnered such attention that well-known actors and actresses approached the ACS, offering to star in them or tell their stories through them. Irving Rimer wasn’t afraid to take on difficult subjects and to deviate from received wisdom. I recall wonderful Peter Max anti-smoking posters that some ACS division directors thought were too psychedelic, but he persisted in rolling them out. He was one of the first people at the ACS who recognized breast reconstruction as a legitimate step after mastectomy. Back in the 1970s, that was considered heretical.

joan and irving rimer

Joan & Irving Rimer at his retirement event

After retiring from the ACS, our parents moved to North Carolina, where they immersed themselves in auditing a wide range of UNC-Chapel Hill courses. Irving volunteered with the UNC Jaycees Burn Center, which was a great source of satisfaction, played tennis (until he couldn’t), read voraciously, starred in plays, worked New York Times crossword puzzles relentlessly, took up the exercise bike and made many friends. He mastered the Kindle at age 93 and said he wanted an iPad. Among the descriptors that have meant the most to me are “moral courage,” “creative,” “brilliant,” and “always had something kind to say to people and recognized them by name,” even in his last years at Carolina Meadows.

Thank you to all the people who have reached out to me and my sisters. We are very grateful. Losing parents is part of the human condition, and it is a tie that binds us all.

my father moved through dooms of love

e.e. cummings

because my Father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all



Barbara Rimer


And thank you! Barbara

Barbara Rimer


Roy, Thanks so much. I really appreciate your message. Sooner or later, we all lose parents, and you've been there. We talk a lot about quality of life and how we live--as we should. The experiences with my parents, and all the stories people have told me reinforce that we also should talk more about the quality of death. That not only affects a person's last important moments but also those close to them and the nursing and medical staff, as well.

Jerry Salak


Lovely Barbara. Thank you.

Roy Baron


So sorry for your loss, Barbara. What an important message to others about your father's final days with you and your sisters and what a loving and touching tribute to his legacy. May the life he lived be a lasting blessing to those he loved and to others he touched through his friendships and profession. All the best, Roy

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.