Shifting Perspective on Death

June 11, 2020

“I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”

—Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix – Axis: Bold as Love

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

It is the nature of things for death to be relatively invisible. So much dies around us that we do not see – ants and worms that die underground, the cellular structures that die, the creatures that die in the forests or in the ocean. We are sometimes disturbed to see a large dead animal beside the highway because we are not used to seeing these deaths.

A century ago by age fifty a person often had experienced numerous losses: his parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters and possibly a spouse and some children. Life then was a succession of funerals. People were born in the home, married in the home and died at home. Loss by death is less visual now and often takes place in a hospital or nursing home. This makes the process of dying seem more exceptional than it is.

Think of the enormity of scale — there are now more than 7.8 billion people on earth and in 120 years all 7.8 billion will be dead. Death is finality in their present form for all living things. Why do we hide it from our children and ourselves?

The emotions of a dying person are complex and contradictory. The Greek dramatist Euripides observed this five centuries before Christ. “God, these old men!” he wrote, “How they pray for death! How heavy they find this life in the slow drag of days! And yet, when Death comes near them, You will not find one who will rise and walk with him, not one whose years are still a burden to him.” Is it the same today?

In the United States today the central anxiety is not as likely to be fear of either Hell or natural death or dread of some philosophical nonbeing as it is to be a visceral terror of a living catastrophe with bodily mutilation, including loss of mind, or emotional abandonment. Those who survive have choices about how they treat this dying person.

Some years ago psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published “On Death and Dying” and other books on various issues related to death. She identified a sequence of five emotions as stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Since then we have found that these emotions usually do not occur in this tidy order and some may keep recurring or not occur at all.

The important thing is to recognize and to respond to the dying person experiencing these emotions. Commonly, the closer people get to death the less their fear of death and the greater is their acceptance.

Hospice care is the process and philosophy of allowing a dying person to spend their last days in a dignified peaceful way. Mme. Jeanne Garnier used the term hospice for the care of terminally ill people in Lyon, France in 1842. When the end of life is inevitable hospice care in a facility or in a person’s home may provide relief of suffering, pain and distress.

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