The Lessons JJ Taught Me


“I’ve heard it said

That people come into our lives for a reason,

Bringing something we must learn,

And we are led to those who help us most to grow, if we let them.

And we help them in return.

Well I don’t know if I believe that’s true,

But I know I’m who I am today because I knew you.”

From the song “For Good” from the musical “Wicked”

He was a part of my life for less than three years. I will never forget JJ Hanson’s first phone call. He was direct, telling me he was a New Yorker and a cancer patient, and he wanted to help in the battle against legalizing physician-assisted suicide. He turned out to be the whole package—young, handsome, articulate, faith-filled, politically astute, Marine Corps veteran, loving husband and father. And he had been handed a death sentence with the most lethal brain cancer that exists.

JJ was a fighter, strong and upbeat. I never met anyone so positive in my entire life. “Every day is a gift, and you can’t ever let that go,” he would often say.  He never said no to any of my requests: speaking at conferences, meeting with lawmakers, doing TV and radio interviews, networking with new groups. He became the face of hope and alternatives to suicide, both in New York and across the nation. He advocated for the terminally ill, for cancer patients, for access to medications, for palliative care and hospice. And he did it all while undergoing treatments, surgeries and new therapies. He once called me from Memorial Sloan Kettering while he was undergoing an immunotherapy infusion!

I never heard him complain or say a bad word about anyone. Lord knows he had difficult times, fighting pain, depression, frustration and unimaginable grief. He relied on God and his family. His wife Kris was his rock. She finished the sentences he struggled to complete as his cognitive abilities failed. They were more than a team; they were a single unit, bonded by deep love.

JJ outlived his initial four-month prognosis by more than three years. In that time, JJ Hanson inspired and changed countless human lives, mine included. Yes, ours was a professional relationship, but JJ was also my friend, and in many ways, a mentor. Here are the lessons he taught me in the brief time I was privileged to know him:

• Life is a gift. Absorb every precious moment of it.

• Cherish your family.

• No matter the misery or the desperation, there is always hope.

• Smile. It’s infectious.

• You can’t hurt steel.

• Stern as death is love.

JJ Hanson went home to God just a few days shy of the new year. (Obituary, Page 5.) His was a loving example of an authentic “death with dignity.” I am blessed to have known him, and because I did, I have been changed, for good.

Kathleen M. Gallagher is director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference.