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Rethinking what it means to die

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NOVEMBER 15, 2013

I’m writing this from a cramped plane seat, on my way to visit an elderly relative for his birthday. He has terminal cancer, and it is uncomfortable to admit it, but this birthday will probably be his last.

His imminent death has been a difficult subject to talk about; when it comes up in conversation with my family, I find we tend to skirt around words such as “death” or “dying,” and we’re reluctant to speak in definite terms of a time when he won’t be around.

But as I sit here, depending entirely on a few engines and a metal cage to prevent my own plummeting demise, I wonder how he feels about it all. Although right now he’s at home, if his condition worsens, we’ll have to bring him to the hospital. Does he wonder where he will be when the time comes? Will it be at the modern gateway of death, in a sterile, starchy hospital bed, under fluorescent lights.

I am thinking of a book I picked up from my co-op’s library about a month ago. The title caught my eye: “On Death and Dying.” I picked it up in part because, like many others, while I often avoid thinking about death, I am fascinated by it and peculiarly drawn to it.

The book was published in the ’60 or ’70s and was written by a physician named Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who started an extended series of interviews with terminal patients, driven by her own interest in the process of dying. In the beginning of the book, she outlines the differences in attitudes and rituals relating to death that she observed in her work.

A rural doctor who moved on to practice in more urban areas, Kubler-Ross found that the country people she treated were on a whole more accepting and willing to talk about death than their city counterparts. In those places, the doctor came to patient’s home, and the patient died in his or her own bed, surrounded by family members. Children were present, and their parents fully informed them of what was going on.

She contrasted this scene with that of the dying patient in the hospital, who is often surrounded by a bustling team of nurses and doctors trying to sustain the patient’s lives at all costs but treating him or her more like a failing machine than a person. In these scenarios, children were often lied to about their missing relative, and the process of dying was less a peaceful transition than a failed battle. Kubler-Ross suggests that this commotion — the attempts at resuscitation, the overbearing medical bustle — isn’t always necessary and is more often than not an expression of the fundamental anxiety and attitude of denial people have about death.

The idea of collective anxiety about death isn’t new. There’s a theoretical system in psychology that traces almost all of human activity back to the neurotic denial of death. In Western culture, more than any other, there’s a pervasive desire to regain youth, to avoid death at all costs. But Kubler-Ross’ book examines this collective neurosis from the perspective of the dying, and the results are sobering.

For many of the terminal patients involved in the interviews, the chance to talk about their experience is enough to elicit tearful gratitude. Many of them relate how evasive their relatives and doctors became when they broached the subject of death directly. It’s unnerving, probably, to be facing something scary that those around you refuse to acknowledge.

For these patients, their last days aren’t spent with the love and support one would hope for but rather in a strangely alienated state. They are avoided because their very existence serves as a memento mori for those around them. Hardly what you would want for your own death or the death one of your family members.

We need to stop treating death like a special medical condition, an illness, an aberration. Death is not a medically treatable disease — it is an inevitability. There is a Buddhist scripture that says: “Many do not realize that we here must die. For those that do, quarrels end.” Likewise, maybe if we can accept the deaths of those around us without frantically trying to prevent them, we can begin to accept the inescapable truth of our own — and maybe find a little peace in the process.

Image courtesy of pds209.

Contact Micah Fry at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @student_bodies.

NOVEMBER 15, 2013