Is Death The Enemy?

Is Death The Enemy?

Posted on Saturday, August 3rd, 2013 at 7:58 am by lifemediamatters

In the end, the marginal status our culture assigns to the end of life- with all its fear, anxiety, isolation and anger- is inevitably what each of us will inherit in our dying days if we don’t help change this unfortunate paradigm.

For many of my healing and helping professional colleagues, death is the enemy. That doesn’t come as much of a surprise, really. Most everything in our training, as well as most everything in our culture, underscores this mindset. However, that truism may actually be counterproductive more often than we realize. I am of the mind that if we encounter our mortality in an upfront way, we will likely be more compassionate toward our patients, clients, friends and family members as they face theirs.

Image: Jacques-Louis David's 'The Death of Socrates' via WikiMedia Commons and Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image: Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Death of Socrates’ via WikiMedia Commons and Metropolitan Museum of Art

The following are some things we might want to consider if encountering our mortality is our goal.

First, death is not only a universal biological fact of life, part of the round of nature; it is also a necessary part of what it means to be human. Everything that we value about life and living — its novelties, challenges, opportunities for development — would be impossible without death as the defining boundary.

While it may be easier to accept death in the abstract, it is often more difficult to accept the specifics of our own death. Why must I die like this- with this disfigurement, with this pain? Why must I die so young? Why must I die before completing my life’s work or before providing adequately for the ones I love?

Living a good death begins the moment we accept our mortality as part of who we are. We have had to integrate other aspects of ourselves into our daily lives – our gender, racial background and cultural heritage, to name a few. Why not our mortality? Putting death in its proper perspective will help us appreciate life in a new way. Facing our mortality allows us to achieve a greater sense of balance and purpose in our lives as well.

Dying can be a time of extraordinary alertness, concentration and emotional intensity. It is possible to use the natural intensity and emotion of this final season to make it the culminating stage of our personal growth. Imagine if we could help those that are sick, elder, and dying around us to tap into this intensity. Imagine if we had this kind of confidence about our own mortality.

Healing and helping professionals can help pioneer new standards of a good death that patients and clients can emulate. We are in a unique position to help others desensitize death and dying. Most importantly, we would be able to support our patients and clients, as well as those they love, as they prepare for their deaths. We could even join them as they begin their anticipatory grieving process.

If we face our mortality head-on and project ourselves to the end of our own lives, we would better understand others as they negotiate pain management, choose the appropriate care for the final stages of their dying, put their affairs in order, prepare rituals of transition, as well as learn how to say goodbye and impart blessings.

Facing our mortality may even allow us to help others learn to heed the promptings of their minds and bodies, allowing them to move from a struggle against dying to acceptance and acquiescence.

In the end, the marginal status our culture assigns to the end of life- with all its fear, anxiety, isolation and anger- is inevitably what each of us will inherit in our dying days if we don’t help change this unfortunate paradigm.


‘The Quality of Life’: End Of Life On stage

Posted on Tuesday, November 20th, 2012 at 5:34 pm by Life Matters Media

The Den Theatre’s adaptation of Jane Anderson’s play “The Quality of Life” addresses many complex and often unspoken concerns baby boomers face as they begin to consider the end of life. The play focuses on Dinah and Bill (Jennifer Joan Taylor, Stephen Spencer), a devout, evangelical and conservative married couple from Ohio. They visit their freethinking agnostic cousins, Jeannette and Neil, (Liz Zweifler, Ron Wells) after a forest fire destroys their California home.

Dinah and Bill recently lost a young-adult daughter, their only child, to an unspeakable crime, and their own relationship has been strained since. Neil is facing late-stage prostate cancer, and Jeannette is unable to imagine living her life without him.

Neil uses marijuana to dull his cancer pain, a practice Bill judges harshly. When Bill and Dinah learn of Neil’s plans to end his own life in the coming weeks, the couple’s visit to California is complicated even more.

The couples’ ideologies clash as they attempt to work through their different beliefs about religion, medical marijuana, assisted death, morality and mortality- all within feet of the audience. Audiences become so invested in the characters that tears flow, an experience the actors call cathartic.

Wells, Spencer, Zweifler and Taylor

Life Matters Media spoke with the cast about their experiences with the play.

Why is discussing the end of life taboo in America?

Spencer: I think it’s such a cultural thing. I have friends who are more like Neil and Jeannette who’ve had a death in their family. They read through the Tibetan Book of the Dead and chanted and their whole family was around. They made a beauty of death because they saw it as a passing. In America, death is taboo. A play like this opens up the discussion.

Wells: I think it has a lot to do with our Puritanical history, our religion. It seems to me that people elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe, have a healthier view of life and death. A lot of it gets tied up in our beliefs and everyone wants to live. I think this play, at the heart of it all, is about “how do you say goodbye?”

Taylor: Because it hurts. We don’t like to talk about things that hurt us. I love being in a play that provokes. It’s been a dream come true to be part of a story that’s so important. I’ve met people who’ve lost their children and came to this play. But they left feeling relief, in a cathartic way.

Zweifler: I’ve been nervous about people coming to see it for that reason. But they seem to really like it.

How do you feel about laws such as Question 2, which was just voted down in Massachusetts? It would have allowed physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to some willing terminally ill patients.

Zweifler: I’m open to it, but when someone gets to decide one’s fate, that’s worrisome. But I like the idea of when it’s your time, you get to decide. But the balancing act is when do you let people go? There are new medical technologies that can keep people alive.

Wells: I have no problems with the issue at all. But I understand how people could fear these types of laws.

Taylor: I was raised Catholic and was raised to believe that suicide is a sin, and that you go to hell if you do it. Some of that is stuck in me. I don’t like the idea of someone being able to end one’s life. I like the idea of comfort at the end of life. I would probably not vote for it, but you shouldn’t have to die in pain. Not when there are good drugs around.

Do you identify with your characters?

Taylor: I’m more like Dinah than I would have ever thought. I think of myself as this liberal person, but I have this little conservative side to myself. I never really thought of it until I played Dinah. I would say things that Dinah would say. I thought I was Jeannette.

Wells: Neil is the most personal role I’ve ever played. Neil is the man I want to be. I see a lot of myself in him.

Zweifler: I definitely have Jeannette characteristics but I’m not as hard on people as Jeannette is.

The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones recommends this adaption. “In a second-floor walk-up, you’ll find honest Chicago acting, deep thoughts, honest writing about societal change and compassion for the messiness of all our value systems, let alone the way we want to face our end,” he wrote in his three-star review.

The Chicago Theatre Review’s Rachel Parent has called the play ”a strong note in a beautiful place.”

Tickets are available here