We will all die. If there is any one truth, that is it. Our culture has, in my opinion, done its best to ignore this fact and pretend we can avoid, through medical intervention and even through our obsession with youth, this basic fact of life. We will all die.
In the end, this inability of our culture to accept death as part of the life cycle has skewed our ability to imagine that, though the physical death of a loved one is painful to those left behind, the experience of attending to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of a dying loved one, and then witnessing the essence of the person leave the body through death, can be a beautiful, life-altering moment.
Naturally, we will not all have the opportunity to be a part of the kind of death where family can gather around a dying person who has lived a full life, then had time to mend fences, express love and experience a peaceful, pain free death. Some deaths are violent and we fear the person suffered horrible pain. Some are unexpected and instant. Some only seem sudden because everyone involved, including the dying person, lives in denial and avoids the issue until death is imminent.
Before I attended the deaths of some loved ones, I used to say that the best death would be to just not wake up in the morning. I no longer feel that way. I now know that a sudden death is an overwhelming shock to surviving loved ones. The chance to voice an apology or express love has evaporated. The chance to say goodbye is ripped away.
Because of my two decades of caregiving for elders, the death process has been an unavoidable part of my life. Because of my awareness that there is far more of my own life behind me than in front of me, I've come to examine the meaning of my own life in a way far different than that of my youth. I don't do it in a morbid way, but in a way that examines what my legacy will be. I also think more about how I will choose to die, if I have that choice (and certainly, I may not).
It's hard to overstate the importance of living wills, or better yet, legal health directives, that state your wishes should you become incapacitated. It's hard to overstate the value of communicating with your love ones throughout your life journey your views - perhaps your changing views - of how you want to be treated should you not be able to speak for yourself.
Do you want life-sustaining measures taken no matter what happens to you? Or do you, like me, want to let nature take its course, should your mind leave this earth before your body gives up? These are things your loved ones need to know. These are things that need to go into writing. You can always change your mind. You can destroy the document and write a new one. But you need to let your loved ones know how you feel, and let them know if your feelings change because of new knowledge or a new belief system.
I've just finished reading the rather formidable but fascinating book titled, The Best Way to Say Goodbye, by Stanley Terman, PH.D., M.D. Dr. Terman is an advocate of letting people choose how they die when they are terminal and are able to make choices about food and hydration.
Terman writes at length about the diagnosis and misdiagnosis of when a person goes into a persistent vegetative state and whether it is a state one would come out of, as well as quality of life, if one does come out of this state. The book is packed with real stories and examples, as well as tons of scientific data. I couldn't begin to encapsulate all that he says in a few paragraphs without skewing his message. However, I'd come close to making a bet that anyone who reads this book would make it a priority to put his or her wishes into a legal document that will stand up in court.
I will leave you with this quote from Dr. Terman that comes as close as I can see to summing up the book: "When we are sure that we have the freedom to control when we die, we can-and we often do-choose to live longer."
The Best Way to Say Goodbye: A Legal Peaceful Choice at the End of Life, is published by Life Transitions Publications. If the book intrigues you, you can obtain much more information about it at www.caringadvocates.org.
Published On: October 27, 2008