Dec
25

Dying is Difficult

By

Talking about death in polite society is like farting at a cocktail party; people tend to become embarrassed and agitated if the subject of death is brought up in conversation.

Although it’s certain all of us will experience it, it’s almost impossible to get others to talk about it and to compare notes on it.

“It” being death.  

And the phenomenon of death is generally not a subject taught in schools.

Maybe it’s my octogenarian age, but I like exploring the topic of death.

I’m not referring primarily about the biological process of dying, although I believe everyone should have some idea of what to expect.

I’m interested in the various ways people die and the choices we have in the matter.

Do I close my eyes to the various possibilities open to me, or do I just go along with the default system, which usually starts with a 911 call, followed by a trip to the emergency room. 

And then depending upon the situation, an MRI or CAT scan is performed, a stay in the ICU follows where you’re hooked up, wired up, intubated and drugged.

After the medical warriors, with their formidable arsenal of technology, have beaten back death once more, you’re sent home patched-up and pallid, weak and wobbly.

Then, when Death inevitably gets close once again, the lamentable cycle is frantically repeated–911 call, ICU, hooked up, wired up, intubated and drugged.

The cost of each trip could easily be hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a great amount of anguish—depleting both the family’s resources and the body’s energy.

At the end, Death appears in the ICU to unlock the door to your prison and allow your soul to take flight towards the light.

Surely there has to be a better way to start out on what I believe will be the greatest adventure of my life. And I find it confusingly amazing that society discourages us from discussing the possibilities.

Einstein wrote to the widow of an old friend, Besso, that death is not the end, and the fact that Besso departed from this strange world a little ahead of him means nothing.

People like us, he told her, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Immortality doesn’t mean a perpetual existence in time without end, but rather resides outside of time altogether.

Einstein found it peculiar that society finds it difficult to accept biological death as inevitable.

The poet, Dylan Thomas, expressed society’s sentiments as follows:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
.

We spend thousands, hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars on medical resources to squeeze out a few extra days of life like we squeeze out the last bit of dried toothpaste.

Doctors train to squeeze out the last brittle bit of toothpaste no matter the cost.

If left alone our exhausted body in its own good time would die naturally.

I suspect that because we have ignored the prospect of death and haven’t given it much thought, when death draws close we think it’s “lights out,” annihilation, and our mind and emotions become agitated and we panic.

And we all know that discussing how medical resources should be allocated is political suicide for a politician.

He or she might just as well swallow a cyanide pill.

As part of the training to become a hospice volunteer, students perform mind exercises where they imagine themselves dying.

The instructor takes the students through the dying process step by step.

MIND EXERCISE

Picture yourself lying in the fetal position. Step outside your body and observe yourself lying there. Ask yourself, “What is me?”  Continue asking yourself, “What is me?” and get a feel for it so that you see, feel, and understand me.

Imagine your left foot disappearing. Is your me diminished in any way? Next imagine your right foot disappearing. Is your me diminished? Imagine the rest of your body parts disappearing one by one. After each part disappears, ask yourself, “Is my me diminished?” Finally, when all your body parts have disappeared, including your head and brain, ask yourself, “Is my me diminished?”

The world has only finite medical resources so it becomes a matter of their wise allocation.

Children and young people should receive what ever medical resources are required to keep them in good health because society depends on them to maintain a robust society and to support the old people no longer able to work.

Older people like me only need to receive treatment for the common ailments and in the end receive palliative care to make the end of our life comfortable.

One can reasonably question whether it’s really a good use of limited resources to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for open heart surgery, organ transplants and chemo therapy just so old people like me can hang around a few extra days on the planet.

And especially when there’s not enough resources to meet the medical needs of children who have their whole life before them.

I wonder if the allocation of medical resources is perversely inverted because old people are organized and vote and have political clout while children have hardly any political clout at all, especially if they live in poverty.

In most cases death is attended by irrelevance, futile attempts to hold on and control.

Even if the dying person wants to let go, the families frantically worry the doctor to continue the Sisyphus task of keeping their loved one alive.

The doctors, because of their training and out of fear of malpractice, hook up the dying person to the machines, inserts needles into their arms and tubes down their throat in a vain effort to beat back death.

Ideally, death for the elderly should be a serene experience under supervision of Hospice. In my hospice volunteer service I visited dying patients to give the caregiver a four hour break from caring for their loved one.

The patients usually were serene and seemed to have no fear of death.

During our conversations they would tell me how they felt about dying and what their expectations were after their biological death. Even though I told them, I often wondered whether the person realized how much I enjoyed our conversations and how much I learned from them. The smile on their face and the joy emanating from their eyes would fill my heart with joy.

An excellent book on this subject is

Death: The Final Stage of Growth by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

COMMENTS: Send your comments to me, Neil Bezaire, at neil@slk.us. I would enjoy hearing from you. Attention will be paid.

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