Many of us enjoy the concept of exploring new things. Traveling to new places, exploring old memories with our families and friends, and tackling something new give our lives purpose and direction. Living and exploring go together well. What do we do with the last part of living - the dying part? How does that fit into life’s great exploration? It seems like just a final act of the journey, one to which we all must traverse. However, people are funny about the dying part. We tend to gloss over that certainty and many times, fail to prepare well enough to prevent a mess to those sorting through the dying chapter of life. Uncle Harold said it well in C.S. Lewis’ book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “One of the most cowardly things ordinary people do is to shut their eyes to facts.”
Death is emotional and largely out of our control, thus the desire to keep it at a distance. Watching the Super Bowl ads this year I felt a brewing emotional reaction to the Farmer’s Dog commercial and said to myself, “Are they really going to show this dog die?” Thankfully they didn’t. TV and movie heroes have a little more control over death than in reality. If you watched the Game of Thrones, you’ll recall Arya Stark answering the question “What do we say to the God of Death?” with a resounding “Not today.” As if it were that easy.
I’ve started a book called Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It’s sobering and fascinating to hear a physician walk through the body’s demise and challenges that come with increased life expectancies. Gawande sets the table with, “The purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not how to tend to their demise.” So far, two points have struck me: First, the slow and constant decline of our bodies - “The body’s decline creeps like a vine. Day to day, the changes can be imperceptible. You adapt.…Then something happens that finally makes it clear that things are no longer the same.” Second, people have different desires than merely just living. Gawande states - “As people become aware of the finitude of their life, they do not ask for much. They do not seek more riches. They do not seek more power. They ask only to be permitted, insofar as possible to keep shaping the story of their life in the world.”
What role do we have as we look out for those around us? Advocacy, empathy, and care are obvious answers. Simple planning, such as creating a will, is worthwhile for those who live on. Is there a place to have a conversation that validates the thoughts and feelings about end of life desires and wishes? This is a great way to honor those we love. We can say that life is complicated, but death is similar, even if only from a practical standpoint of juggling the independent spirit of people with their evolving healthcare needs. By the way, the book might be the best $10 you’ll ever spend. Incredibly enlightening on a complicated topic.
Death is never easy when you know the people doing the dying.
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