An excerpt from Making Friends with Death: A Journal & Field Guide for Your Impending Last Breath

My position on death? I’m totally against it.

That said, I will concede I lose that argument, and that moreover, there isn’t much of an argument to be made. Die I will.

And I suppose I simply want those last moments to be graceful, serene, full of equanimity. And frankly, knowing myself as I do, I’m afraid it will be a crazed herky-jerky thing for which I get no second chance.

Thus, I have come to believe that dying deserves our full attention and some preparation. It seems to me, though, that the very contrary is true. We don’t prepare at all, really. How many of us give it serious thought or consider how we want ours to go? Or, if we have thought about it, how many get what we want? Not many: 75 percent of Americans say that they want to die at home, but only 25 percent do. And shockingly, fewer than half of people over 75 had given much thought to the end of their lives. Seriously?

I find this frustrating, although I also understand that there are good reasons for this — I’m sympathetic with the human condition, being a human myself. But still: not many Americans are getting the death they want, and the reasons for that is because we haven’t prepared for it, either literally (via legal documents) or emotionally (making peace with it) or strategically (knowing how it’s going to pan out in reality). We either ignore it or say something generic, such as, “if it gets bad, just take me out to a field and shoot me.” But come now, is that realistic?

There are a couple of reasons we shy away from Serious Death Prep, in my opinion:

  • One: No one comes back to tell us about death, to describe it adequately, or to give us some clues on what’s best to do. This is why the conversation surrounding death is much like discussing sex with a bunch of virgins; the idea is out there, but it’s lacking in details and information, and those kinds of conversations can lose their appeal.
  • Two: The human psyche rebels against the idea of its end. Regardless of how much I try to separate from my ego, I am personally going to miss the soul of Laura. I like her, and I know that she likes being alive. I’d just prefer to think about her death, well…later.
  • Three: As humans we are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today. It’s not our fault, really; our poor psyches would flip out if we couldn’t assume some perception of continued time and stability.
  • Four: We don’t know when or where it will happen. We might choke on a carrot or get shot by a jealous lover. We might be diagnosed with leukemia, only to live 20 more years and die from a slip on the ice. How can we plan for something so completely random?
  • Five: We have a deeply-held, superstitious belief that thinking about it will make it happen. Just as a sports fan fears he might jinx a big game by wearing the wrong color socks, we suspect that writing a will might somehow set in motion a chain of events that will make the reading of the will necessary. We know it’s not logical, but still…thinking about death gives some people the squeebyjeebies.

But one day, something happens.

A diagnosis. The death of someone. A simple moment of clarity. We realize that none of those reasons is enough, and that death might happen, well, today. For some reason, you put down the phone or look your doctor in the eye, and it only takes a few seconds to receive the news, but you are already standing or sitting in another world altogether. It is a scary world. All that time and predictability we’ve depended upon are rendered unsure — and the ground becomes quicksand.

Or at least, that’s what happened to me.

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Laura Pritchett

Laura Pritchett is the author of literary novels and books of nonfiction. Her work is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by her native Colorado. Both her fiction and nonfiction often focus on issues of ecology, conservation, climate change, and social justice issues. She has been awarded the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the High Plains Literary Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the WILLA Fiction Award, and others. Printed with permission from Viva Editions at vivaeditions.com.

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