Posted by: Korry | January 23, 2012

Joe Paterno, Steve Jobs, Aurlo Bonney and Why We Need Strong Connections

Yesterday morning I awoke to some very sad news: Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State football coach, passed away at the age of 85. It’s been a difficult few months for the Penn State community, and Joe Pa’s passing marks yet another low spot. Thankfully, the Paterno legacy of “Success with Honor” that he cultivated over 46 years as head coach will live on forever. 

Paterno’s connection to Penn State was about as strong as it can get. The really sad part to me is that Paterno passed away just 74 days after having that connection severed by his firing on November 9, 2011. Yes, in recent years, his age was definitely showing as he faced a hip replacement and other ailments common to people his age, but it was only after he was let go from the job he loved that he was diagnosed with the lung cancer that ultimately took his life.

So I can’t help but wonder: did Joe Paterno die, at least in part, because he lost one of the strongest connections in his life? Take Steve Jobs or Aurlo Bonney, for example, and decide for yourself.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, a condition bearing an average life expectancy after diagnosis of only 3-6 months, Steve Jobs continued to work at Apple while fighting the disease for 8 more statistic-busting years. Yet after leaving Apple on August 24, 2011, he survived only 42 more days, passing away on October 5, 2011.

Or consider Aurlo Bonney, who I learned about in the MSNBC article “Never to part: Devoted couples share life, death.” Aurlo was married to his wife, Virginia, for 65 years. But when Virginia lost her fight with Alzheimer’s disease, Aurlo passed away just 8 days later. The article even cites a study showing that a person has a risk of death up to 50% higher than normal during the first six months following the death of a spouse. It also quotes Dr. Hope Wechkin, the medical director of Evergreen Hospice in Kirkland, Washington as saying:

“We see it all the time. Often a patient will come on to [hospice] service and we find out their spouse has died six weeks earlier or so. … I think it’s about connection. For many people, their spouse represents their greatest sense of connection to this world.”

My wife, Jen, is a huge believer in this connection effect. (In fact, I’m pretty sure one of her life’s missions is to find stories like the Bonney’s, email them to me and then remind me that if she goes first that she expects me to follow immediately thereafter!) Quite honestly, I believe in the connection effect, too. I believe we all need passions and connections in our lives. When we are passionate or driven, we have more energy and more stamina to confront challenges. When we have spouses who are our teammates in life, we are stronger together than on our own.

Whether it is connecting yourself to another human being, a career or other passion, these connections seem to make us healthier. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of airline pilots who retire and then die only a few months later. For these pilots, flying was all they knew. When that connection was gone, so was a significant portion of their drive to live. For Joe Paterno, that passion was Penn State football. For Steve Jobs it was Apple. For Aurlo Bonney, it was his spouse and partner for life. When Virginia was gone, how could he ever function without her?

It’s fun to be a bit sentimental and romantic about all of this. And, who knows if it’s true or not? There sure do seem to be lots of examples of people who die soon after experiencing the loss of such deep connections, however.

I guess what I’m saying is that in my opinion, regardless of whether the phenomenon is true or not, it seems we have far more to gain by pursuing the benefits of strong connections than by not doing so.

What do you think? Is this just coincidence or is there something more to the power of strong connections?

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