“Let’s take a fresh look at our mortality, and let’s do so in an interactive and positive way. Let’s celebrate the concept that living well and dying well are one and the same thing. I’m not talking about adjusting deathbed pillows so that, as we die, we can strike heroic poses for the edification of onlookers. I’m talking about achieving a good death in the context of real dying–with all its unpredictability, disfigurement, pain and sorrow.”
I recently presented a workshop at a senior center north of Seattle entitled “Managing Our Mortality,” the same name I use for this series of columns. I like that title; if for no other reason than it doesn’t seem to spook folks into thinking doom and gloom as they consider the end of their lives.
For most people, the concept of mortality is easier to handle than the concept of death. They are one and the same thing, of course. But such is the power of euphemisms. I began my presentation with some preliminary thoughts on the concept of living “a good death.” This is another favorite topic of mine. I am of the mind that a good life and a good death are one and the same thing, but this is a really hard sell for someone who is enjoying one’s golden years and not yet ready to go push up daises.
All of these workshops begin with my proclamation: “Let’s take a fresh look at our mortality, and let’s do so in an interactive and positive way. Let’s celebrate the concept that living well and dying well are one and the same thing. I’m not talking about adjusting deathbed pillows so that, as we die, we can strike heroic poses for the edification of onlookers. I’m talking about achieving a good death in the context of real dying– with all its unpredictability, disfigurement, pain and sorrow.”
I was watching the body language of those gathered to hear me, because I know this moment is critical in the presentation. A rise in the anxiety level of just a few can be contagious to the whole group. There was a modest amount of lip pursing, clearing of throats, shifting in seats and crossing of arms. Some, I realized, were ill at ease; however, I thought I was ok with the majority, and I pressed on.
Just to be sure, I casually added that I deliver this very same message regardless of my audience– college kids, soccer moms, healing and helping professionals, everyone. My audience seemed to settle down. They were reassured that I wasn’t singling them out for a special dose of reality, just because they were of a certain age.
A nicely dressed woman with carefully coiffed platinum-colored hair meekly raised her hand. When I called on her, she said: “I don’t understand the concept of a good death. There’s nothing ‘good’ about death. Death is the end. I’m really enjoying my retirement, I’m involved with all sorts of creative things I never had time for when I was working and raising my family. I don’t relish the thought of all this coming to an end any time soon.”
Heads nodded. Further back in the room, a man who appeared to be well into his 70’s stood up with the aid of his cane- in anticipation that I would call on him. I pointed to him and asked, “Do you have a question?”
“Yes I do! Actually it’s more of a statement,” he replied. I asked him to continue.
“Well, seems to me that dying is hard enough,” he said. “All this talk of a ‘good death’ sounds like you are layering on an expectation that we do it correctly, and I take exception to that.”
More heads nodded, and a fair amount of whispered chatter was audible. The anxiety level in the group was about to peak.
Perhaps I had misjudged my audience. I thought they were with me, but at least some of them were either resisting or confused by the “good death” concept.
I addressed the man in the back of the room who was still standing, leaning slightly on his cane. “I think there has been some misunderstanding,” I said. “When I use the term a ‘good death,’ I don’t mean to suggest that there’s a proper way of dying. As you suggest, sir, dying is hard enough all by itself, I certainly don’t want to add performance anxiety to the mix. Is anyone else getting the impression that I’m talking about a ‘correct way’ to die?”
Some of the participants tentatively raised their hands.
If a few people were bold enough to raise their hands, others must have been feeling the same way, but were too timid to acknowledge it. I decided to go at this differently.
I asked, “if we were talking about living the good life, would any of you feel as if you needed to conform to some arbitrary notion of what that is?” Most everyone shook their head.
“I thought not!” I continued. “So why then did you make that leap when I mentioned the concept of a ‘good death’?”
This query stumped the crowd.
I proceeded to tell them what I will tell you now.
One of the reasons death is such a hot button issue for most of us is because we have isolated death way over at the extreme end of our lives, and that’s a mistake. For one thing, it makes death stick out like a sore thumb, when actually it is part and parcel of life. Nothing is alive that will not die.
In fact, more things die than will ever have a real life. Consider the infant that is stillborn. For that child, birth and death occurred at the same moment. But just because you and I have lived beyond that crucial period, it does not mean we are in the clear.
The first breath we took once outside our mother’s womb set us on a trajectory toward the inevitable end of life. Each of us is old enough to have witnessed the death of many people, some older and some younger. We have all seen the carnage of war, the ravages of disease and we have known sudden and accidental death, too. Every breath, between our first and our last, is both our living and our dying. That is why living well and dying well are one and the same thing.
There is a secret I want to pass on to you, and it will seem pretty simple and self-evident once you have embraced it. The secret is that we must learn to integrate death into life. Once we do that, death stops being this freakish, scary thing waiting for its chance to pounce. Death is actually beside us all along. It is in us, too. We are our death in the same way that we are our life.
When we live the “good life,” however we choose to define it, we are also living our “good death.” If we want to make sure that our death is good and wise, then we must be proactive- just as we have been proactive in living our “good life.”
If we fear death then, on some fundamental level, we fear ourselves. Nothing good, least of all a good life, will ever come of that.