I am surrounded by people who are dying. Some, slightly removed. Some I look in the eye every day. It appears common that there are two responses to terminal diagnosis, after the shock, grief and anger that is normal and healthy.
The first seems to be the most common: an heroic approach to hopeful expectation of medical miracles, an overwhelming belief in the power of positive thinking. A hopeful optimism about ‘living life to the full’, as if in defiance of the diagnosis.
The second, less common, also seems hopeful, at least to me. A hopeful pragmatism, a leaning into what it might mean to die well.
It seems to me that most of the western world is afraid of dying. Not of death, but of the process of dying. It’s the unavoidable conclusion we all face, regardless of spiritual beliefs, that the breath will end, the body will cease the function, the mind will close and the end of this life will come.
That last breath is just that. The end will come in a moment, a rattling breath held between long pauses until the pause becomes the final cadence. It’s the journey to those last seconds that we resist and pull against.
Only the Good Die Young
It’s hard not to feel the tragedy of life ending for people in their prime. Those who are still enjoying the fragrance of youth, the romance of leisurely weekends or the thrill of newborn days. Worse still, the tiny ones for whom life is swept away before it’s barely begun.
Maybe there is a hard truth in here; we’ve come to expect that life is some we’re entitled to, rather than a fragile, sometimes fleeting gift.
I feel the pull of injustice and fury, those new parents who face leaving the world before their children have a chance to know them. Those who die from preventable disease create the same response in me – but they are faceless, my friends are not.
Is it possible though, that we could be happy about dying? That we could communally accept death as a healthy process and engage in meaningful grief, acceptance and peace?
The Myth of Cure
We can cure some diseases. We can ease the symptoms of some viruses. We can prevent some illnesses from their drastic effects. But humanity, science and medicine has many limitations.
We cannot cure all maladies, and we absolutely cannot cure Death.
So when we talk about medicine, we talk about prolonging life. We rage, we fight, we strive for life – but we cannot cure Death. In fact, Death is necessary. More necessary that we often like to admit, but without it there can be no inheritance.
Death is a process of seasons; all of which are vital. Death is not a disease, death is not to be cured.
The Ideology Of Dying
Perhaps, Death is to be lived. As much a thriving, growing, seeding process as the seed that is buried in the earth to be transformed into something new. The pumpkin seed bears no resemblance to it’s fruit until you cut within it. Yet, life in one must cede in order to provide sustenance to the other. So in dying, purpose can be fulfilled as sweetly as in living. We just need to consider that dying well is in fact, an act of life.
The Theology Of It All
Inevitably, it seems that it’s hard to talk about the end of life without engaging in some belief or another about what happens after that.
It’s funny to me, that some people can talk about what people don’t deserve. The idea that someone could believe in a God who thinks some people do deserve a death while their children are in infancy, or a long, protracted suffering. Similarly, those who have the audacity to proclaim that death is something we determine worth by.
It’s a strange kind of grief that accepts the death of one, more easily than another and claims that as some sort of fairness or justice, by merit of what one deserves. Conversely, the phrase ‘if anyone deserves a miracle, it’s you’ sickens me. How disconnected from reality are we, if our idea of comforting words is such a false and futile statement?
You see, we’re still – Christian, Atheist, Muslim, whatever – susceptible to viewing Death as punishment, the unexpected ending, rather than what it is.
Death is the final season, the closing bell. It comes in all sorts of shapes and forms. It used to come sooner, often quicker. Now, we hold out the value of life above the value of a good death. We fight to hold onto days of dulled pain, for a shot of more time.
But time is only worth what you give it. Maybe we spend too much time waiting for life to get good before we start living. Then we rage against Death, when that’s as much part of living as anything else.
More, more, more. It used to be that women sent their husbands to war with the hopes of their return. Nowadays, we scramble for text messages throughout the day.
Imagine if the modern-day long distance romance had to wait on airmail or sea delivery instead of digital audio, email and video calling? We’ve become used to the luxury of accessible time. Being able to connect with people more often, more easily. When we want to.
That’s the luxury we can’t bear to be separated from. Death remains as resolute as ever. No matter how many text messages, instagrams, blog posts, Facebook updates or coffee dates – when Death comes, connection is over.
It’s connection that we crave – connection that tells us, reminds us we are living indeed. No wonder we fight and rage against death. But still Death comes. So it should.
We’ve come to crave connection and scream ‘Unfair!’ when Death comes to take it from us, when we should be more interested in better endings.