October 5, 2013

Have We Forgotten How to Die?

Photo: Hugo Kintzler

One of my earliest memories is attending my grandfather’s memorial service at the age of four.

I remember it clearly: it was raining that day. I wore a floral-printed dress that my aunt and uncle in Hawaii had sent me. My mother and I were late to the service and both of us were wet from the walk from car to the church. I remember feeling somewhat happy and excited on that day.

Flash-forward four years and I remember feeling a lot more sober at my uncle’s service.

Like my grandfather (his father), he died from lung cancer. I was closer to him than I was to my grandfather and had far more memories of him. My uncle was only 46 at the time. Back then, I did not understand why my mother, grandmother, and other relatives were saying 46 was “young.” From my eight-year-old perspective, I thought it was an incredibly long lifetime.

I still remember the dress I wore. This time, I wore green plaid, and I accidentally tore it that evening when I took it off.

This wasn’t the last memorial service or funeral that I would attend as a child. When I got older and told people about my experiences, it was a bit surprising how many would comment that it was so sad that I had to attend these events. One well-meaning boyfriend even asked why anyone would let a four-year-old attend a funeral.

My response was why not?

As I have shared in previous posts, my family was very atypical in many ways. There was a lot I would do differently, but  looking back, I am glad I got to attend funerals and memorial services. I am also glad I got to see the above-mentioned uncle dying.

Doing so taught me that dying was a natural part of life. It also taught me that death sometimes comes early when people are least expecting it.

As my uncle’s battle with cancer taught me, death isn’t always pretty nor does it wait to come until an individual has crossed everything off their to-do list.

In his case, he was able to die at home like he wanted, but he did not die peacefully. In fact, the last time I saw him alive which was two days before he died, he expressed regret and frustration about various parts of his life. While my mother and aunt claimed it was just a side effect of his medication, I believed then and now that he was telling the truth.

In our society, there is an attempt to shield both children and adults from the reality of death. There is a growing body of research designed to extend lifespan. There are even talks of one day taking the human brain and uploading it into a computer or machine which, if possible, really would be a sort of immortal life.

While some may be excited by this, I am doubtful that I would take advantage of such things. (Okay, maybe I would like to live a long time if that meant that I could remain in good mental and physical shape, but the idea of living forever just seems so unnatural.)

The fact is, we all die at some point.

Death is not easy.

It can and does bring great pain. However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore it or opt to hide it away like so many of us do (i.e., in hospitals) with the idea, “out of sight, out of mind.”

Where I live, we have a number of hospices. For those unfamiliar with them, hospices are not like hospitals. People go there to die. Many hospices, including the one a mile or so from my home, look like houses. The trained staff specializes in helping both the patient and the family make this final transition.

I have thought about death and dying quite a bit since my father was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer nearly two years ago.

He decided some time ago that when his time is near, he is going to go into hospice care close to where I live.

Since I have shared the news of my father’s illness, people have asked me if it has been hard for me to accept my father’s impending death. The short answer is of course it has been hard, but it’s also been a gift in that I get to be there when he makes his final transition.

My daughter who is now four years old knows that Grandpa won’t be around. I don’t know if she quite gets the concept of death, but I have no plans to shield her from his.

My goal isn’t to scare her, but to help her understand that death is a natural part of life.

She may be too young to experience the feelings I will probably feel: sadness, loss and even a sense of relief that I will finally be free of the unrealistic expectations my father placed on me throughout my life. My hope is that she will be able to get a glimpse of what death actually is, which will prepare her for the deaths of others in her life including herself even though (hopefully) that will not occur for a long, long time.

In the end, I think it would be nice if all of us could experience that, so perhaps we could collectively demystify the process and if not exactly welcome death, at least be more willing to accept that it will eventually come to each one of us.

Maybe if we did, we could, paradoxically, learn to live more.


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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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