Archive for March 13th, 2011

The Thinker

Thoughts on death and dying

Should dying be scary? Should being dead be scary? It seems for most of us the gut answer to both questions is yes. There is a lot of money to be made feeding our fears and phobias around death and dying. The beauty industry depends on its ability to sell us on, if not on the illusion of immortality, at least looking much younger than your age. Dying is steady business, if not a growth business, for a burgeoning network of service providers from retirement communities, to nursing homes, to funeral homes. Hollywood’s revenue stream would be severely diminished if the powerful emotions inherent in these topics lost their lure. Would there be a video game industry of note if we did not use their virtual worlds to work out of death anxieties by blasting various bad guys, aliens, zombies and assorted creatures from the id? Our prosperity may be measured, to some extent, on our obsessions with death and dying.

A former creative writing teacher of mine, doubtless echoing someone else, posited that there were only two great mysteries of life: sex and death. As a fifty-something gentlemen, sex is no longer a mystery to me, but relationships remain as puzzling as ever. After seeing my mother go through her long decline, dying is less of a mystery to me as well. On a typical day, my top rated post of the day will be a eulogy I wrote for her over five years ago. My creative writing teacher must have been on to something then, because my blog statistics show that sex and death are what people care about. In the last thirty days, 1253 out of 10,573 page views (nearly 12%) were for the eulogy I posted about my mother. However, there were at least 1534 page views were for a half dozen sex related topics. Even at age fifty something, I am still interested in sex, although significantly less that I used to be, and even though there is little mystery in sex anymore.

As I age, I find that my feelings and thoughts on death are changing too. My greatest nightmare traditionally goes something like this: I go see the doctor and he discovers I have some dreadful disease. He tells me that I will have a painful and debilitating decline and in six months I am likely to be dead. Today, I don’t find that nightmare nearly as frightening. This is because one of the consequences of aging, at least for me, is that I both know and feel that I will die. To go from being alive to being dead, I will go through a dying process. Dying may be a very short process or a very long process. But I will die regardless. In short, dying is entirely natural, as natural as birth. At some point it is unreasonable to be too afraid of a natural process.

The late Timothy Leary, always a bit of a contrarian, was bizarrely thrilled to learn that he was dying. He saw dying as something of an adventure, presumably something akin to the many trips he took with acid (LSD) in the 1960s. Leary, who died in 1996, kept fans appraised of all aspects of his death on his web site. He even had his death videotaped for posterity. While the dying days of many are hardly memorable, and are often painful and humiliating, they do not have to be bad. For some, particularly those who receive professional hospice care, dying becomes an experience in extreme living, as drugs keep them from much pain and the tender and compassionate relationships developed in hospice care leave them feeling loved and listened to, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

My own mother’s dying process was wrenching for her as well as for us, but some part of it was wrenching because of her attitude toward death. She could not accept her death, even though she knew she was dying. Her attitude may be because she helped care for her own mother during her dying process, and her mother was mentally ill and reportedly cantankerous through it. It may be that dying, like any other life experience, is what you make of it.

Occasionally I run across remarkable stories about people dying. One of the most remarkable was the death of my friend Lisa’s niece Lauren back in 2006. Lauren, who I never met, died at age 19. She remained chipper and compassionate with everyone through her long dying process. She rarely complained. In some ways, the process of dying and her decision on how she would cope with it defined a remarkable part of her life. She chose for it to be a positive experience and so it was.

I hope when my turn comes I can be this way, but I won’t know until that time arrives. I hope the essence of who I am will be stronger than the scary and bitter feelings that are natural from many during the dying process. I hope when the time comes I will not be full of regrets and disappointments, but realistic and grateful for the time I did have, and for the experiences I have enjoyed. I hope I find the courage to die well, perhaps doing a better job at the end of the life than the many missteps I made through life itself.

Death itself is no longer scary to me. Part of it is because I sense I do have a spirit, and thus a certain immortality. If I were physically immortal, like Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, I suspect I would find it mostly a downer, because those I loved would not share my immortality, and the world would change so much. A lifespan of eighty to a hundred years, should I live that long, is very long in itself. If dying is a property of life, then it is also true that the one constant in life in the universe is change. The universe is always recreating itself. In death in some ways I will be recreating as well, either through some sort of reincarnation process or I will help give life to new forms of life. Either outcome is good. I hope I find that my life was a glorious, and perhaps undeserved gift. I hope this knowledge will fill me with gratitude, wonder of my limited understanding of the universe, and a realization that through death I allow more life to emerge.

 

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