ETERNALLY YOURS—On Death And Dying
MAKING FRIENDS WITH DEATH
By Loretta Downs
Seven years ago, I arrived in Ajijic for a month-long winter respite from Chicago. I was expecting solitude to write and was delighted and surprised by how easy it was to make friends here. Some, I know, will be friends for life.
At that time, I had spent 25 years companioning family members, people with AIDS, hospice and hospital patients, and nursing home residents through the end of life. I walked in healthcare with the sick and I sat at the bedside of the dying, all voluntarily.
The whole experience fascinated me, called to me to learn more about dying. I studied dying and death, took classes, read books, listened to teachers, and watched Death at work. As a result, I learned more about living than I ever could have. Death taught me about being grateful, compassionate, non-judgmental, being present and being in the present, listening carefully, feeling joy even in the face of adversity, and appreciating every breath I take with the awareness that one will be my last.
Death is an experience that cannot be avoided. If you fear flying, you can choose to drive or take a train. You don’t like broccoli? You can choose to push it off your plate. Afraid to die? No choice. But there are choices and decisions about how to die when you get there. That is why making friends with Death is as beneficial as making friends anywhere.
The contemporary end-of-life experience is like none other in human history. For millions of years we died much younger and we died quickly from injuries, infectious diseases, or organs that stopped working. Child mortality was high.
We all died at home, surrounded by loved ones and cared for by family and neighbors. Everyone witnessed death, and understood the dying process. Death was a natural part of life and we developed rituals around the way it affected us.
Today we live twice as long as we did just 120 years ago. Science has mastered treatments for chronic illnesses, extending both our living and our dying processes, sometimes beyond what we would choose. Many of us die in ICUs, with loved ones believing, “We did everything we could to keep her alive.”
Though 75% of us say we want to die at home, that many of us are dying in institutions where dying is not recognized as a natural part of life, one that deserves sacred space. Why? Because we don’t talk about dying. We don’t prepare for Death. We do not make friends with Death, learn how she meets us. We fear the mystery, we fear acknowledging our own mortality.
That fear stops us from exploring the possibilities that accepting impermanence can teach us. It stops us from talking about what’s important to us when we do face death. It stops us from connecting deeply to each other in our shared mortality. It stops us from having peaceful, gentle deaths.
Baby Boomers and their children are giving energy to the “Death Positive” movement spreading around the world, the same way the Natural Birth Movement has done. We want our loved ones to be included in this most significant experience. We want our values and beliefs honored at every major life passage, especially the last one. We want to end well, in comfort and with dignity—at any age.
Healthcare organizations are getting the message. The era of paternal medicine is over. They are now working to teach their staffs about “Person-Centered Care” and “Shared Decision Making in Critical Illness,” for discussing advance directives before it’s too late.
The key to ending well is for anyone over 18 to engage in the lifelong process of advance healthcare planning, making decisions about treatment choices before you become too ill to do it.
“Compassion and Choices” offers useful tools, including a Dementia Provision for your living will.
Option for treatments and care at the end of life are expanding. From palliative care and hospice, voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED), legal Medical Aid in Dying (MAID) available in seven US states (20 more are considering it) and all of Canada
The “Death Positive” Movement is creating new ways to approach Death. Professional death doulas and death midwives are being trained in large numbers to guide patients and loved ones through the natural process. “Death Cafes” are being held all over the world—watch for notices on “Café Mortality Ajiijc” events—as are “Death over Dinner” parties. People are making their own coffins and cremation containers. The desire for natural burial and places to do it are increasing. We are walking toward meeting Death at a good time.
The reason for this special section is because Lakeside is home, if even for a short time, to a rapidly growing and aging community. That means more of us need help and more of us die here each year. Besides the high quality legal and medical professionals, care homes, and funeral providers who are paid to serve us in sickness and death, there are many others supporting the inevitable end-of-life experience for all of us. Some of their stories are in these pages.
Our hopes for this Special Section on Making Friends with Death is that you will begin to open your door to the positive aspects of planning ahead; that you begin to have conversations with your loved ones about what ending well means to you; that you take care of the business of dying so not to leave a mess for someone who loves you; that you want to learn about the dying process and the options available to you when you have to face it; and that when you do face it for yourself or someone you love, you can be present—whether near or far away.
Let’s face the fear together. Let’s prepare together. Let’s open to the mystery and create support together. Let’s make friends with Death, because making friends with Death will give you a friend for life.
Ed. Note: Loretta Downs can be contacted at www.endoflifeinspirations.