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Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Different Way to Think About Death

I've been reading book about death for a while, wanting to grasp the psychology of it, wanting to know more about my own future. One thing that struck me is that those who care for the dying say they need two things above all: permission to die and company while they do so. In our society today we are terrible at meeting that first need.

What do we do when we see a dying creature?

In some times and places compassion for a dying animal meant giving it a quicker death. Now it means fixing it, at all costs, and caring for it, if necessary, for the rest of its life. Now it means prolonging its death for as long as possible. And if it is dying and there is nothing we can do, lying about it.

What we are doing, that we claim to do in the name of compassion, is not compassion. It is avoidance of pain and fear of death.

We, the living, don't want to confront death. We would rather the burden of carrying a dying creature for fifty years than a week at his bedside holding his hand while he dies. Yet that is what the dying need, I have read. Not to be our burden. No one wants to be a burden.

We know this, deep down, that no one will accept burden status, so we lie to them. We tell stories to make them feel entitled to being burdens; we play a dishonest psychological game with ourselves pretending that they are not burdens, that it is meaningful to carry them, that good people are genuinely happy to do so, that it is their right to be carried, that they deserve it, etc.

But this dishonesty is not kind because dying people need two things: our permission to die and company while they do so.

To turn them into a burden and then lie to them, telling them they are not a burden, is to deprive them of our permission to die.

More than denying them permission, it gives them the message that they are bad to die. It also deprives them of a possible meaningful death.

"Am I a burden to you?" What if they need to hear that they are? What if that is what will give them the strength to face what is perhaps the scariest thing a person will ever have to face? What if we said, "You are a burden to me, a heavy one. I am struggling under the weight of carrying you. But I will carry you, until you are ready to go."

The journey of death is the journey of acceptance. How can the dying find meaning in their death if we refuse to? What if their death could have meaning? What if instead of their death being a failure, it can be a gift they give those who survive them, a lightening of the burdens of the living?

The faceless society cannot bear the dying, individual people must. Because it is the desire to not burden those individuals that gives the dying the strength to go, that enables their death to be a gift. I would so much rather my death be a gift to those I love than a traumatizing event that causes them pain.

Not saying we should run around telling people to die. Not saying death will ever not be painful. But I would like to see a cultural shift in our attitudes about death and especially about choosing to die instead of live and the many times it is a highly rational choice. We treat death as such a tragedy, but it is the fate of each and every one of us. It is not a failure on the part of the dying person. Memes talk about the "courage" of those "fighting cancer" in their "battle against death." I think that often the far more courageous choice is actually the choice to go gracefully. Sometimes the battle is desperation and fear. Especially when I see pictures of courageous toddlers fighting to survive and destroying the lives of all those around them in the process. The toddler isn't courageous of course. And neither are the parents. It is not courageous to sign up for twenty years of medical bill slavery so that a sick child can die in his teens instead of now. Facing death, your own and the death of those you love, is often the far more courageous choice.

Someone wrote to ask me about my position on the elderly and here is what I have to say: In Tibetan Buddhism it is said that a person spends the first half of his life learning to live and the second half learning to die. The elderly are those in the final stages of learning to die. They should never be infantilized nor turned into burdens against their own wishes. Their death is natural and right and should not be prevented or prolonged, rather it should be treated as sacred, beautiful, and theirs.

The dying need two things from the living: permission to die and company while they do so. Most people die today, sadly, without the former. Like labor, the "no" instead of the "yes" can make the experience last much longer than it would have otherwise. Death can be dragged on for years if someone is given the message that their death will cause pain to others.

And the latter not everyone actually needs, just most people. I will want someone to hold my hand. But many people are so connected to their spirituality that they don't need anyone there. If that is the message an elderly person gives by choosing to stay in his own home alone, so be it. He doesn't want to be a burden. That is actually far more natural and right than convincing him he would not be a burden. He should be praised as heroic, honest, emotionally aware, brave, and generous. It is not sad to know that, no matter how much your family loves you, caring for you would be a burden for them – a burden they would bear, but a burden you don't wish them to bear. It is beautiful to refuse to be their burden, beautiful to give them that gift.

Perhaps this isn't a new way to think about death at all. I have read of hunter gatherer tribes in which the old were expected to get lost in the forest. That was how they died. No one offered to carry them. No one insisted the tribe go slower. Similarly, old vikings, when they saw that they were becoming burdens on the living, left to fight in a battle. They did it consciously, knowing they would not survive the fight. They said their goodbyes and then picked a cause to die for. Of course, their main cause was that gift they wanted to give their families. Because life was understood to be endless toil and death was understood to be rest, it was easy to talk about the burden of caring for the old. Contrast that with today, when we can't seem to have honest conversations about death at all.