“I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.”
There are all sorts of reasons why we deny death, and of course denial is understandable. I think it's important to welcome the conversation about death, though, and reclaim it as a natural part of our lives.
Before death became largely relegated to hospitals and nursing homes, it was common for families to experience death in the home. Denial wasn't an option. As a result, opportunities for closure and acceptance were the norm, and profound end-of-life conversations could occur. Last words were important. Last wishes were spoken, and honored.
In order to understand what a good death means to each of us, individually, we must first have the conversation with ourselves. Once we know what is important to us, we can write it down and communicate it to our loved ones. This is necessary, as they are the ones who will carry out our wishes.
There’s a common misconception that such a conversation will be a grueling and unpleasant experience. In most cases it’s the opposite—it’s poignant, loving, deeply moving and honest. For some people, it’s the most profound moment of connection they have ever experienced. When you ask your loved ones to carry out your last wishes, they feel honored by your trust.
Here are some questions to ask yourself now:
o If I die suddenly in an accident, what paperwork do I need to have in order for the proper distribution of my estate?
o If I find myself suffering a prolonged illness, what values should guide the decisions that will have to be made?
o Who do I trust to make decisions for me if I can no longer make them myself?
o What do I consider a "good death"? Are there any steps I can take now to make that outcome more likely?
Too often, decisions are taken out of our hands, and we find ourselves and our loved ones caught in an exhausting tumult of medical procedures that drastically diminish the dying person’s quality of life. When the inevitability of death is accepted rather than denied, the possibility opens for those last days to be spent in peace.
The choice is not between length of life and quality of life. In fact, as Atul Gawande tell us
in his book Being Mortal, people who choose hospice care live as long, or longer, than those who choose continuing medical intervention.
Because life and death are unpredictable, it’s never too early to learn how to have an honest conversation with your physician if a terminal diagnosis is made, and how to rally a circle of friends and family to allow you to be cared for at home—if that is what you want. You will
be better prepared for whatever comes if you are clear in your own mind about your expectations when choosing medical interventions, and understand what hospice can offer.
Creativity has a place in death planning, too. You can begin writing your obituary and include information that others wouldn't know to include, letting your own personality set the tone. You can record yourself talking about your life, and the people and things and places and activities you love—either as something to be played at your memorial, or simply as a gift
to those you leave behind. You might choose to hold a "living wake," with friends and family attending from all over to celebrate your life—with you still there to hear what they all have
to say about you.
I believe we are happier and healthier in mind (and body too) when we turn toward death and face our fear rather than hiding from it. If we are honest and open about the inevitability of our death, we bring emotional richness into our life—however much of it may still remain.
"For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one."
~ Kahlil Gibran
"If we are fortunate, we will be present for our own death. A dying person can meet the precious companions of truth, faith, and surrender."
~ Roshi Joan Halifax