Thursday, June 2, 2016

Preliminary reflections on death

Because of its tremendous solemnity, death is the light in which great passions, both good and bad, become transparent, no longer limited by outward appearances. (Soren Kierkegaard)

There is a gold embossed sculpture of an open orb, a large metallic globe, in the courtyard of the United Nations, created by an Italian sculptor, with an inscription to this effect: We all present a polished face to the world, while inside, the picture is much less perfect. Of course, human nature operates on the premise, as Jesuit John Powell puts it in his little book entitled, “Why I don’t tell you who I am,” I don’t tell you who I am because you might reject me, and that is all I have. So, reflecting on the above quote, death cuts through our pretense in presenting and upholding “appearances” highlighting our best and our worst emotions.

In the palliative care department, and in the hospice, patients/clients are facing death. They know it; their caregivers know it; their families and friends know it. There is no escaping the reality that the end of a life is very near. And while every attempt is made by these specially trained care givers to comfort the patient in his last days and hours, there are no more games. Far from the public main street, where talk of death is so remote and almost never heard, even in a whisper, these cocoons of care remind one of the nursery where the nursing profession cares for our newborn infants. We do definitely pay close attention to our newborns, and to a slightly lesser degree, we pay a different but similarly close attention to our dying. Whereas, those visiting the nursery talk in enthused tones about their hopes and dreams for the new baby, those visiting the hospice or the palliative care floor speak of the current condition of the patient, and often of memories of their experiences with that person. In the former, the talk looks forward; in the latter, the talk and the perspective is into the mirror.

However, considering death a “light” rendering great passions transparent is a perspective infrequently encountered even in discourse among those training for work among the dying. Writers have for centuries attempted to qualify, frame and even minimize the meaning and significance of death. There is such a finality to our demise, and so painful is the notion that many have come to a place where it has to be a passage into an eternity of love and bliss, represented by descriptions in the book of Revelations. When an elderly family member is admitted to hospital without previous notice, family members will ask themselves, “Is this the time I should make my way to the hospital?” Saying “Goodbye” is a ritual  which some people find excruciatingly painful. I recall watching parents walk for hundreds of yards along a railway platform as they said ‘goodbye’ to their departing university-bound child, now a young adult. Their waving hand and arm extended a kind of connection, metaphorically, that words could not and did not. They also conveyed a sense of both hope and apprehension, given the uncertainty of the future for both parent and child.

Death management, grief management and the circumstances in which we each first face the death of a pet, for example....these are significant moments, and even for a little child to be robbed of the experiences of whatever their curiosity requests, is a failure of omission by parents too preoccupied with protecting the child. There is something both memorable and healthy in permitting a child’s hands to prepare a burial site for their deceased hamster. There is also something memorable and healthy in accompanying a young child to say goodbye to a grandparent...for both the child and the grandparent. Recalling the encounter with a widowed husband, immediately following the death of his young wife, when he uttered these words, “I did not say goodbye to her!” is an experience filled with sadness and regret for the husband and for the now-deceased wife.

We are generally so “accomplished” at beginnings, especially when compared with “endings”. And the gulf between the two demonstrates our courage and willingness to open our hearts, minds and spirits to both. There is a case to be made that our world view is intimately embedded in our relationship to both birth and to death. Some try to prepare for their death by adopting a stringent moral and ethical standard as if they are anticipating God’s will for their lives, as an earned passport to a heavenly afterlife. For others, such “playing God” is not an adequate approach. Living fully, in the here and now, confronting the major threats and challenges forthrightly, (even with help if needed) prepares them for the opportunity to engage in open conversations with others at a time of an untimely death of a loved one.

For survivors, those family members and friends who lose a loved one, there has been considerable work, both formal academic research and also practical and anecdotal story-telling and gathering from bereavement support groups over the last quarter century. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief have become almost household concepts since she began writing about the subject of grief, mourning loss and death. For those perhaps new to the Kubler Ross concepts, they are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Purportedly, these are roughly the five stages through which we all go, (not necessarily in a lock-step, universal manner) following the death of someone significant in our lives.

Poets and writers stake their claim on death: as surcease from life, its warning as the unleashing of one’s zest for living, as the kindest way to lost a loved one,  as the dream prior to another dream....

Kiekegaard’s perspective, as the light in which passions, good and bad, become transparent bears some unpacking. When one faces death, one is no longer under the caution to curb emotions, not longer bound to keep up a positive appearance for a public hungry for the back story of buried conflicts, repressed hates, thwarted loves, and even the most fantasy-like visions that, having been uttered  before death, would have rendered one insane, or unbalanced, or perverted, or worse, evil. One is not longer facing an locked padlock on one’s trunk of confessions, facing, as one is, the final curtain. As Frank Sinatra’s My Way puts it, expressing a similar perception to Kierkegaard:

Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way

I've loved, I've laughed and cried
I've had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way
Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels

We all carry a perceived burden of what we consider self-protection, keeping our real feelings to ourselves, so that another will not reject us. Whether we are facing death, or in the presence of another who is, the words that come paint a very different picture from the politically correct discourse of our daily lives.

·       A spouse says tragically, after the divorce, when facing death, “I believed I would have been rejected if I showed up, when really I was rejected for not showing up!”

·       Another spouse utters a more than half-century contempt of her now-deceased partner, a contempt that poured itself all over the walls and the pine floors of their shared home for sixty-plus years, “He was no good, he was never any good!”

·       Another spouse, following the divorce, and immediately prior to death reflects: “I never knew I was in a competition for the affections and attentions of our children with their mother, until after the divorce!”

·       Another spouse, on her death bed, reflects, “It is so hard to say goodbye to all the people,” and drifts into a deep coma and then dies.

·       Another man, facing his own death from leukemia, sits the chaplain down on the floor beside his hospital bed, and pours forth a 90 minute homily on how the chaplain should, or even must, live the rest of his life.

·       A woman dying at fifty, whose sister and friends are holding a vigil in her last hours, utters the scathing indictment of her abusive husband from whom she never divorced, “I gained all this weight so I would never be attractive to that man, so deep was his commitment to pornography!”

·       A young woman, going home for her last time, turns to a friend, on the way to the family car and utters: “I have to go home now and let the family take care of me, not because I want to, but because they need to!” (She returns to hospital in a few days, in a coma, to die.)

·       An elderly man knowing of his impending death, is asked, upon his return from a home visit for his favourite lunch, “Would you like to go back home for lunch again soon?” His quiet, immediate reply, “No!”

·       Another man nearly 100, when fully conscious and facing his own death, utters these words in his hospital room to visiting friends, “I am not good enough to face God; I did not live a life worthy of going to Heaven!”

And as we all begin to contemplate our mortality, perhaps we could begin to reflect on our lives, on how distorted our public presentation has been, when compared with our truth and reality. And rather than, as Benjamin Franklin muses, “Most men die at 25 but are not buried until they are 75!”....we might reclaim the full truth of our emotions now, today, with those who claim they care about us, and those we love and begin to life a life worthy of our death.
It was Dr. Martin Luther King who reminded us that until we find the purpose for which we are prepared to die, we will not be fully alive.
Little wonder, then, that some of the wisest people in history have found intimate links between death and birth, that when a death occurs, there is also an accompanying and usually unexpected birth close at hand.

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