You live in a death-averse culture, huh? Let’s talk about myths related to dying.
MYTH 1: Dying is always painful/gross/bad.
Dying is many things. Rather than focus on the “goodness” of a death (which veers into shaming or pressuring territory), Frank Ostaseski promotes an approach to dying that prioritizes “care with dignity.” Such an approach “promotes self-respect, honors individual differences, and supports people in their freedom to live their lives and their deaths according to their personal wishes” (The Five Invitations, p. 272).
Additionally, a “contemplative approach to dying includes ways of being such as mindfulness, warmth, authenticity, stability, and generous listening. This allows us to enter the question of dying without so many answers. Being with dying calls for humility, acceptance, and a willingness to let go of control” (p. 273). Bringing humanity and attention to all parts of dying shifts the paradigm of what “dying” is.
The current paradigm, influenced by the medical establishment, places death in the realm of “suffering to be avoided.” In society at large, death is considered an end. On top of that, it is common practice to consider that only the “dying” (considered a separate class, even though they are the same person as they were before their diagnosis) should be thinking about death and, if they do, it should be quiet and not disturbing to the “living.” This paradigm is a stagnant one that preemptively silences the self-reflection that can be so meaningful. It is a paradigm that robs us of having the vocabulary to discuss mortality while we are in the throes of life; vocabulary that brings clarity and precision to our understanding of ourselves, our relationships, and the world. Dying, at any age, can be a transformative moment for everyone involved. Note that “transformative” does not only mean positive; it encompasses frustration, pain, regret, and disempowerment, along with celebration, closure, honesty, love, and connection.
MYTH 2: There is a normal time to die
So far, death has a 100% success rate. You will die. Your loved ones will die. You do not know when it will happen, and you are guaranteed nothing. While lifespan statistics and tests can give you a vague idea of how many years you have left, those numbers are only numeric representations of vast amounts of data; it is not individually predictive.
It is tempting to find comfort in “the order of things.” This is invoked, tragically, when a child dies before a parent, or when anyone dies “before their time.” Those moments, with so much pain at the heart, highlight the random and complete nature of death. There is no set timeline for your life. Do with it what you want.
MYTH 3: Dying people don’t want to talk about dying
From Grief Works by Julia Samuel: “Of the 80% of people who die in the hospital or nursing home, only 20% would choose to do so. Less than a third of those dying have talked to their families about their wishes, though 90% think they are important.” Clearly, there is much to discuss.
Talking about the ‘end’ is, for many, an opportunity to recollect, share forgiveness, or seek closure. Perhaps some don’t want to talk about dying. Perhaps some would rather talk about treasured memories or watch television. Whatever the preference is, it should be determined by the person at the center of the experience (not the “patient,” the person). Centering their needs and wants, no matter the discomfort it causes others, is important.
Additionally, financial stress after a death (especially a breadwinner’s) adds confusion to an already painful time. Providing clear instructions about everything from insurance to bank account numbers and passwords can be a gift from the dying person to those who will remain.
The Conversation Project (www.theconversationproject.com) has wonderful resources for talking about end-of-life wishes with loved ones.
Dying: What the Dying Have to Say
Many wonderful books have been written by people particularly aware of their own mortality: people with terminal illnesses. Their memoirs are written with a clarity borne of urgency. Each memoir is differentiated from the others by its individuality; each lifetime yields a specific collection of memories, regrets, and musings on the impermanence of life. Their collective wisdom offers much for death-novices to consider. And, because death is universal, their conclusions can be comfortably reduced to a few ideas. While this kind of distilling may feel reductionistic at first, it is a testament to the simplicity of our shared fate. We were born, we live, we will die.
Thankfully, we do not need to wait for a diagnosis to hear these lessons. You can consider them in your daily life and be influenced by them now. Of course, not all dying people face their fate with the same articulate equanimity found in these memoirs. And, it is important to reiterate that not all deaths are uniformly transformative or graceful. My research did not find memoirs by angry, dying people whose love is embittered, nor memoirs by people whose diagnosis comes just days or weeks before their death. And, there are none by those who die suddenly (death poems, spoken at the moment before death, come the closest). We also don’t hear from the people whose life circumstances does not permit them to spend hours writing about their mortality; each memoir read for this project was a financially comfortable middle or upper class person who did not struggle for money or resources, and whose command of language was appropriate for the subject.
A sampling of dying memoirs:
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanathi
Enjoy Every Sandwich by Lee Lipsenthal
Dying, A Memoir by Cory Taylor
Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die by Sushila Blackman (not by dying people per se, but a collection of vignettes about dying in Eastern spiritual traditions)
We also have the gift of the wisdom gathered from them by the hospice workers, doctors, and chaplains who sit with the dying day after day.
A sampling of books by people who work with dying people:
For more descriptions and recommendations of death memoirs, view the resources page.
Dying: Activities and Exercises
To approach death with the respect given to life, consider these exercises to enhance your relationship with it.
Contains The Year to Live Exercise
Considering the date one year from today as your death date. What will you do with your remaining 365 days?
Write down 5 truths you believe about death and dying – these could be based on verbal messages from family, society, or what you’ve internalized by brushing up against death. How have life circumstances, death, illness, and mis/fortune influenced your view of death? Start with the beliefs and work your way backwards. This can also be done in a pair.
Plan Your Last Day
Imagine you are at the end of a long life and you know that today is the day you die. What setting would you like to be in? Are you alone? If not, who is there? What do you see, smell, taste, hear, and feel?
For the most practical approach to death, start settling your financial and legal affairs now, aka “end-of-life planning.” There are many, many websites and resources that can assist you with the necessary documents: will, advanced directive, recording important passwords and accounts, naming executors, funeral wishes, etc. Providing this kind of legal clarity to survivors can be a huge relief. You can start here: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/resources/funeral-end-life-planning
There are many more resources on the subject of dying on our Resources and Tools page for this section.
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