Every story ever written has a beginning, middle and an end. Every author considers the end when first sitting down to write a storyline; However in the greatest story an individual will ever author, the end is often left unscripted.
We can’t write death in on our calendars and begin to plan when it seems ‘timely’. On the day we are born our death is written onto our calendar in invisible ink.
Modern day society chooses to approach death as if acknowledging it is morbid, preparing for it hastens it and accepting it is giving up.
Talking about your end of life care preferences when death is a remote possibility, supports decision making about end of life care when death is a probability, and promotes healthy coping during end of life when death becomes an inevitability.
In December 1974, my uncle was home from his work as a missionary priest in the Amazon, when an aortic aneurysm ruptured and he died in his sleep. I was nine years old, in the kitchen, as the discussion of burial arrangements took place and there was question about where he should be laid to rest. I said I knew where he wanted to be buried.
Every year my uncle hosted our family reunion on the grounds of the Villa Redeemer Monastery in Glenview, Illinois. On this property was a small cemetery and on one of our walks through the grounds that summer, my uncle told me he would someday be laid to rest there.
Because he shared that with me, I was able to share that with my mother. It was a small conversation that made a big difference to my mother in her grief.
Perhaps because my grandmother grew up on a farm where death was recognized as a part of life; Perhaps because my mother’s brother died at four years of age; Perhaps because my mother grew up during WWII; Perhaps because my own father died when I was three…perhaps for all these reasons, death was not a taboo subject in my house growing up, nor has it ever been a taboo subject in my own home as an adult.
Embracing mortality has emotionally prepared me to make life and death decisions in unexpected moments. This preparation does not make decision making easier – it does however, make it less complicated.
When we live in denial of mortality we create an illusion that creates complications during times of crisis. It requires that our psyche do some serious catching up in very little time, and oftentimes there isn’t enough time to actually catch up.
The internal dialogues might look like this:
Prepared: (death is a real possibility) “No. No. NO! I can’t believe this is happening. I knew this day would one day come, but today? I’m not ready. I’ll never be ready. I can’t make these decisions. I don’t want to make these decisions. We talked about what to do, but I don’t want to.”
“This isn’t about me. It’s about Mom and living life on her terms. It’s so hard to imagine this, but Mom has always been clear about what she wants.”
(death is a probability) “I don’t want to believe that I have to do this, but I know what Mom wants. She’s told me all along. She doesn’t want to merely exist. She doesn’t want to be on machines. She doesn’t want to be a burden. She wants to live life on her terms. If she can’t be an independent active participant in life, she said she didn’t want to prolong her death. She prepared me for this, but my heart is breaking.”
“I don’t want her to suffer for me. I want her to be peace-filled.“
(death is inevitable) “I’m sorry Mom for the things I did that hurt you. Please forgive me, hurting you was never my intention. Thank you, for teaching me what friendship means. I forgive you, for all the things I was ever angry about. I love you.”
“Mom, it’s ok to let go, if you need to. I’m here. I’m right here.”
Unprepared: (death is a real possibility) “No. No. No. No. NO! I won’t believe it! We have to keep fighting. You have to keep fighting, Mom. You are a survivor! You got this! Yes, keep her alive at all costs. Don’t give up on her. It isn’t her time yet. I’m not ready yet.”
“There has to be something else we can try. Why is she getting worse instead of better? What are you doing?! Why aren’t you helping her?”
(death is a probability) “Mom, I know you are tired and suffering but you have to keep fighting. This isn’t over yet. You still have so much to do. I need you. Your grandchildren need you. I am not prepared to say goodbye so you have to keep fighting, ok?”
“You are not a quitter! Don’t you give up on me!”
(death is inevitable) “I can’t believe this is happening. I knew this day would one day come, but today? I’m not ready.“
“I’ll never be ready.”
“I didn’t even have the chance to say good bye…”
Preparation is not morbid. It does not hasten death. It needs to be seen as the natural order of authoring our lives.
Just as preparation does not manifest death, it also does not guarantee the circumstances of our death. We cannot foresee details, but we can verbalize the atmosphere we’d like it to have. Because at birth our death is already added to our ‘to do list’, it is appropriate to have ongoing open conversations about what we might want to include and exclude from that atmosphere.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic our mortality has never been more undeniable. Take this opportunity to begin having conversations, exploring your fears, beliefs and hopes about your own death. Tell your loved ones what your preferences are to ease their emotional burden when the time does come. Your loved ones may not have certain choices regarding your end of life care, but at least they will have your Voice as guidance in making the really tough ones.
It may not come during this pandemic – we all hope that is true – but clearly, death is happening all around us now. We might still live in fear of it, but we can no longer deny the possibility, probability and inevitability of our mortality.
It is in embracing the existence of our death that our best living begins.
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