Living is a team sport. Dying is a team sport. ~ Timothy Leary.
A culture of denial:
When we talk about death, if we at all do, we don’t entertain it for the exact experience of what it is. Genocides and decapitations happen elsewhere or on TV. Angelina Jolie might be drop dead gorgeous, your grandma might have one foot in the grave and we’re often bored to death. Your friend might complain about her deadbeat husband and Six Foot Under might be a bar and restaurant you go to in underground Atlanta.
When it comes to death, euphemisms abound. But, we all know within ourselves that we’re all going to die someday.
Part of why we live in a state of outward denial is because our culture programs us to think that way. Society wants us to pretend that we’re going live forever. It encourages us to spend millions of dollars, and makes us spend time that we literally don’t have to look and feel beautiful. And if you’re a woman, the more ageless you look, the better.
Conversing about death:
There are many people in hospices and homes around the world who live as if they’re waiting to die. But when death arrives, most of them die alone, scared and anxious. Why wait till the end to explore the feelings associated with the final act? Why can’t we all start exploring the thought of a peaceful ending?
Let’s do an exercise to imagine all the the emotional and mental pieces that go along with the process of dying.
Picture your home, and a spot where you can be most found at. Lets say a friend walks in through the front door, where will he or she find you most likely? Is it the front porch, your kitchen, your office room, or in front of the TV?
Now picture that spot with you in it.
When you’re ready, close your eyes, and see that spot empty.
What about that thought was scary? Did it enhance the existential angst you feel?
Acceptance brings awareness of impermanence:
Thinking and contemplating this way, and speaking the language of dying, can help us move into a place of peaceful acceptance.
If we can get to that place, into those experiences, we can truly realize what it feels to be human. We can embrace the aging process, the possibility of illness and eventually our own death.
When we move closer to the experience, we learn from the people who’re dying. We feel grateful for where we’ve come and how much we’ve lived through. We can try to live well, forgive and be a little more compassionate towards others.
When we see our loved ones, we realize that we won’t have them forever. So, we love them more. We can endure a little more for them. And it moves us to give more. Infact, contemplating death might be a great motivator.
When we begin talking about the impermanent nature of life, we do our loved ones a favor too. We can set our priorities right for whatever time we’ve left. We can help them understand what our wishes are during life and after we’re gone. It gives you a chance to express to your friends and family how you want to be remembered.
Emotions before death:
If you’re caring for a person who’s terminally ill or is experiencing a natural age related death, its important to understand the emotions that they go through as they’re about to die:
- Acceptance. Grace, that might never happen
- Panic. Sometimes, utter and total panic
Understanding the words associated with death:
If you’re a Hindu, you’ll be cremated. If you’re lucky, you’ll be cremated along the holy river of Ganges or if you’re in America like me, your lifeless body will burn in a controlled inferno.
If you’re a Christian, you might be buried. And if your family chooses to embalm you, your face will be covered in makeup and your lifeless body will be fully pumped with chemicals to preserve you “forever”. You’ll be put in a fancy box and put 6 feet in the ground in a concrete tomb and a marble plaque on the top of it.
Ever see those nice rows of fake flower bouquets that line up cemeteries on Sundays? Drive around or walk around, and you’ll find tombs of people who’ve left a legacy of love in their life and in death. Of course, some tombs only get visits a few times a year. And some never. Appropriately so, their family might tell us.
How society is changing:
In the past few years, we’ve seen a shift in how we as a society are talking about death. A few years ago, Art Buchwald, a humorist, wrote a death bed memoir called Too Soon to Say Goodbye. It was about his last few months before his death before he succumbed to kidney failure. And since then we’ve seen the rise in death bed memoirs.
In 2014: Brittany Maynard fought for her right to die with dignity. After finding out about her terminal diagnosis of cancer, she opted to die rather than survive at any cost. She has reignited our conversations about aid in dying and assisted suicides.
In 2015: I read a book by Atul Gawande, a New Yorker columnist and a physician called Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. He talks about how modern medicine has won over illness and infectious diseases and has managed to prolong life spans. But, he asks, in last years of our life, do we want to live hooked up to machines and medicines?
In 2016: I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, his memoir about his life and illness, battling stage IV metastatic lung cancer. He wrote this after he got his terminal diagnosis.
In 2017: I read The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs, her memoir about her life in the last one year of her life after receiving a terminal diagnosis for breast cancer.