In dealing with the loss of a loved one, perhaps the only remedy for those empty feelings is honoring their lives by helping them find peace in their final moments.
As the people in the stories below faced death, they wished only for their lives to be celebrated in a special way — by loving, by committing a selfless act, by having fun.
Read on to see how family, friends and communities channeled their grief into beautiful gestures, serving as a tribute to their loved ones in their final days.
1. This 8-year-old girl wanted to hear Christmas carolers one last time before she died. Ten thousand people showed up to grant her wish.
Laney Brown was diagnosed in 2013 with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare form of cancer, at just eight years old. The doctors told her family that her blood was 70 percent cancer cells and she would not survive much longer. Laney’s dying wish was to meet singer Taylor Swift and hear Christmas carolers outside her house. On a Friday night, the pop star fulfilled the request and spoke to Brown via video chat.
That alone might have been enough of a final thrill for the Laney. But on Saturday night, people began showing up to her house. Not in the tens or in the hundreds —10,000 people gathered to sing a dying girl Christmas carols, taking a little time out of their own lives to enrich a life that was not going to be around for much longer. Laney died just a few days later on Christmas morning. But judging from theabove photo posted to Facebook during the caroling, it’s a safe bet she heard the love these people were expressing for her loud and clear.
2. A dying wife left this loving, emotional letter to her husband and children — and to her husband’s future family.
After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in January of 2011, Brenda Schmitz was told she would only have months to live, leaving a husband and four sons behind. She wrote a letter to her family and arranged with a friend to have it delivered posthumously, if and when her husband found a new love. Sadly, Schmitz passed in September of that same year, and her family tried to move on as best they could. Her husband David eventually went on to meet a new woman, and two years after his wife’s death, David asked Jayne Abraham to marry him. Brenda’s friend at last delivered her letter to a local radio station and they presented it to David as part of an ongoing Christmas Wish series.
In it, Brenda writes, “My reason for writing is this. I have a wish. I have a wish for David, the boys, and the woman and her family if she has kids also. I want them to know I love them very much.”
Watch the video of the full letter being read to David here. A word of warning: While extremely touching, it may be very tough to watch for some. But it is an absolute testament to the amazing and selfless person Brenda Schmitz was.
3. This 79-year-old Marine was discharged for being gay years ago. He had one final request before he died: to be vindicated by the US military.
In 1956, after being outed to the military, Hal Faulkner was discharged from service by his commanding officer. Despite having a fairly impeccable record with no significant blemishes, Faulkner’s discharge was labeled “other than honorable.” Clearly the victim of discrimination, the label haunted Faulkner for over 50 years.
At 79, Faulkner was diagnosed with late stage cancer and had just six months to live. He decided that his final wish in life was to have those words stricken from his record. With “don’t ask, don’t tell” gone, this was a possibility, but with Faulkner’s time running out, his relatives had to race to have his record changed.
Finally in January, in a small ceremony at his Fort Lauderdale home that included his family, lawyer and some fellow Marines, Faulkner was presented a letter from the military assuring him that his record would be restored to show that he was discharged honorably. Faulkner died January 14th, just a few weeks later, at last vindicated, free from a painful disease, and able to rest peacefully knowing that his legacy would be truly his.
4. Man’s last wish was to leave an astounding tip — “$500 on a f****** pizza,” to be exact.
Pure and simple, Aaron Collins’ dying wish was that his family go to a restaurant, order a pizza, and leave an amazing tip. “Leave an awesome tip (and I don’t mean 25%. I mean $500 on a f****** pizza) for a waiter or waitress,” Collins wrote to his family before his death last year. And after he passed, Collins’ family did exactly that. Understandably, the waitress was taken aback and very touched by the gesture.
The video of the $500 tip did so well that the Collins family set up a tribute website to give out more $500 tips in Aaron’s name. According to the website, ninety seven such tips have been given out all across the country. These are “awesome” tips not just in their size, but also in the scope of what it probably means to the employees of an industry known for being rather underpaid.
5. A firefighter’s firehouse brothers gave him one last ride on the big red truck.
Eight years ago, Newport News, Va. firefighter Fred Broyles left work to go to the doctor, where he found that he had cancer. He never went back to work again. And after eight years, Broyles was losing his battle to cancer and realized he’d never gotten to enjoy one last ride on a firetruck. So his firefighting brothers stepped in to grant him that dying wish in June of 2013. Broyles died peacefully in his home just four days later, but he got to ride in that fire truck one last time.
6. A little girl wanted only to drive in a pink Lamborghini with “Top Gear” host Richard Hammond.
Two years after suffering a bout with pneumonia, a British child named Emilia Palmer was diagnosed with a rare lung condition at just eight years old. Emilia’s last wish, organized by the Rays Of Sunshine charity group, was to ride in a pink Lamborghini with TV host Richard Hammond of Britain’s hugely popular car show “Top Gear.”
A Lamborghini dealer provided the sports car and allowed it to be temporarily painted a bright pink. Hammond then picked up Emilia in the flashy Lamborghini — after she was let out of the hospital just for the occasion — and the two went for a spin. Sadly, Emilia died a few weeks later in October 2013, but not before seeing her final wish come to life.
7. This girl wanted to see “Up” before she passed, so Pixar sent her a DVD of the film before anyone else could get one.
Ten-year-old Colby Curtin was diagnosed with a rare form of vascular cancer in late 2005. After three years of battling, Colby was told she didn’t have much time left to live. Curtin’s dying wish was to see Pixar’s new film, “Up,” which had just come to theaters. Unfortunately, Colby was too ill even to go out to a theater, so a close family friend worked tirelessly to get a hold of Disney or Pixar officials to see if something could be done. The people at Pixar heard the request and quickly flew an employee to Curtin’s Huntington Beach home with a special DVD copy of “Up.” Colby passed away in June 2009, just seven hours after watching the film with her family.
8. A teenager got her dying wish to marry the sweetheart who cared for her.
Leslie Rivera was just 18 last April when she was diagnosed with a uniquely difficult to treat form of leukemia. Throughout her treatment, she was watched over and cared for by her boyfriend Daniel. Knowing that she did not have long, Rivera had one last request: to marry Daniel, the love of her far too short life.
She asked for the help of the Make-A-Wish foundation, which knew they needed to act fast given Rivera’s condition. They reached out to celebrity wedding planner David Tutera. Tutera and his team recruited vendors and volunteers who provided everything for Rivera’s special day. That day finally came on November 21, when friends and family joined Leslie and Daniel to celebrate their lives together.
Rivera lost her battle with leukemia in December. Her family and, of course, loving husband were by her side. Tragic as it was, we can perhaps take solace in the happiness and joy Leslie received and the special moment she got to share with her high school sweetheart and husband.
9. A group of Star Wars fans built a custom R2 droid to watch over a terminally ill little girl while she slept.
Albin Johnson is the founder of 501st Legion, a group of Star Wars fans who craft costumes from the film, as well as promote charity and volunteer work. When Johnson’s 6-year-old daughter Katie fell ill to terminal cancer in November of 2004, fellow Star Wars group R2 Builders jumped into action. They gathered donated parts from all over the globe and over the course of a few months, built a very special R2 droid. R2-KT watched over Katie while she slept and battled the disease, and remained with her even in the final days.
Katie died in August 2005, but her astromech droid R2-KT lives on in her name.R2-KT attends comic conventions, appears at charity events and visits sick children in hospitals. Katie’s story was so inspiring that Hasbro made her droid into an action figure and it was even featured in “The Clone Wars” animated series.
10. A 9-year-old wanted to help developing countries without water. After tragedy struck, strangers donated over $1 million in her name.
In 2011, instead of buying gifts for her 9th birthday, Rachel Beckwith asked people to instead donate to a charity that helps provide clean water to third world countries. She only raised $220, short of her $300 goal, but she planned on trying again on her next birthday. A month later, however, Beckwith was involved in a 14-vehicle accident near her home of Bellevue, Wash. She died in July after being on life support for three days.
When word of Rachel’s death and her selfless charity push spread, groups sprung into action and donations poured in. Within a few days, more than $130,000 was raised. That was in 2011, but as of today, more than one million dollars has been raised to provide clean water to developing nations, all because of one amazing 9-year-old named Rachel Beckwith.
11. A homeless man wanted to see his old canine friend one last time before he died. The community made his wish come true.
In May 2011, Kevin McClain, 57, discovered that he had terminal lung cancer. Dying and in hospice care, he had one last request before he passed away. For years, McClain had lived in his car with his beloved dog Yurt. When he was hospitalized, Yurt was taken from him and given to an animal shelter. McClain very much wanted to see his old companion again. With the help of the community, Yurt was located and reunited with her former owner. The dog recognized McClain instantly and the two bonded together, just like before. McClain passed away shortly after the reunion, but he’d be happy to know his beloved dog Yurt was adopted and is being cared for by Kate and Eric Ung, a couple who quickly considered him part of the family.
12. This dying mother wished to see her son graduate, so in her final days they brought the whole graduation to her.
Jennifer Linnabary was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, and though she had lived longer than many thought possible — long enough to see her oldest son get married — she was struggling with kidney and heart failure and had only a few days left at best. For her final wish, Linnabary wanted to see her youngest son, Ben, graduate from high school. Linnabary was previously known for starting Project SEARCH, a program that helps the developmentally disabled get jobs. Linnabary was used to helping others, but now she needed help.
Family and friends went to work and within a few hours on a Saturday afternoon in February 2013, the school’s superintendent and principal, along with family and friends, gathered in Linnabary’s hospital room. Ben wore his cap and gown and was presented his diploma by school officials. Linnabary was so weak she wasn’t able to physically open her eyes to see, but her children say she knew what was happening.Linnabary died the next day at the age of 52 in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Linnabary’s Project SEARCH now has sites in nearly all 50 states, which means her legacy of helping others will live on.