Adventure, love, war, fantasy — these are the usual stories you choose to read or shows you want to see. Chances are you rarely venture toward death and dying. Why is that? Maybe it is because you have never encountered a discussion of benemortasia, the good death.
Until I wrote and published my book, Loving to the End…and On: A Guide to the Impossibly Possible, I cannot say I had thought much about it. Since publication, I have often been asked why we evade and why we avoid talking about death and dying. Why, when there are so many beautiful love stories during and after terminal illnesses, do we not talk about them?
You’re going to die. How do you want that to be? Who do you want nearby? Is there music you like? Foods you want to eat? People you want to see? In Loving to the End…and On, I repeat the story of a baptism immersion creatively rigged to fulfill the request of a patient in a hospital intensive care unit. I tell another story of Elvis Presley gospel recordings played bedside for a dying centenarian.
In a recent award winning essay, “Ethical Consideration in 21st Century Medicine,” cardiologist Morris M. Weiss says, “Our parents and grandparents often died in their 50s and 60s of cardiac, infectious, diabetic and cancer illnesses, now so effectively treated that 20-30 more years of longevity has become the norm. How society handles this population is a moral issue.”
With increasing numbers of elderly people, let’s assess ways to provide advice and assistance. Let’s talk about that apparently dreaded topic. Using the six attitudinal stages for research and conversational guides explained in Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 1969 groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, pioneers have been exploring them: Denial, Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance — with Hope that may sneak in and out in any or all of the stages.
These stages make sense when someone has been given a diagnosis that points to probable death. None of us knows with certainty the when, the where or the why of our own death. One thing is certain: each of us will die.
In my research and writing, I’ve found that some people fear ideas that may have come from religious teachings; some fear the unknown; some fear their loved ones may not be able to cope; and some fear the dying process itself. Dr. Weiss says, “Everyone knows they will die. The real fear of death is not this reality but how we are going to die.”
It is natural to wonder about pain, about how long we may be ill or in decline, about the death process itself and if death will be quick or protracted. It is natural to wonder what kind of treatment will be provided, who may make decisions about your life if you are unable to make them yourself. It also is natural to wonder, “Who will take care of me?”
It helps to talk about these things while we are able to express what we want or what we believe to be right. For instance, do you think it is appropriate to prolong life just because we can? Or do you think it is more loving to release an aged loved one from a deteriorating, sometimes painful body?
Euthanasia is very controversial in our culture, but not so much in all cultures. Putting that aside, it can be helpful instead to think of benemortasia: permitting a person to die. Few people, if any, say they want a painful end to life. Even so, we are often counseled to have more medical tests, have additional surgery, take additional drugs, endure another kind of chemotherapy. Perhaps we should ask: Are we preserving life or prolonging death? What might be the impact of those options? What is right for you? What is right for those you love who may no longer be able to tell you?
Most of us probably agree that the choice for a young person might differ markedly from the choice for our ever-increasing numbers of elderly. In Loving to the End…and On, I mention my nonagenarian grandmother. Her attending staff expressed concern about her desire to eat only chocolate and bananas. To our family that was amusingly unimportant. She was dying. In weeks, possibly months, her aged body would quit working; all the signs were there. We wanted her to enjoy whatever time she had left. Chocolate and bananas became the menu for her ongoing departure party.
If you can talk about dying and how that might be for you, you may also want to assess another belief: after death, what? Will you cease to exist or will you survive in some way? Do your beliefs impact the way you think about death and dying or about the kind of medical treatment you may want?
Many experiences in my own life suggest some form of spiritual survival. To those who think there is no such survival, I suggest, “Just for a moment, suspend your disbelief.” When you do so, you are more open to considering the vast amount of research and reports of things such as death-bed visions, near-death experiences and after-death communication. To that end, Loving to the End offers research, experiential data and personal stories. It also celebrates loving here, now, and beyond.