This unexpected post is a result of my overwhelming enthusiasm for Dia’s exploration of the topic of dying in The Odd & Unmentionable. As always, she writes with clarity and illumination and confronts the topic that most of us shy away from, either from our own fears or from concern about our audience’s fears. Forgive me readers, as through the balance of this post, I will be conversing directly with Dia. Perhaps you will find our conversation thought provoking.
Several things in this post made me wonder if you have studied Buddhism, Dia. Not that I know anything about Buddhism, but some of your comments made me think of what I’ve heard about Buddhism, for example: “Life doesn’t belong to us.” That is so illuminating. We are not taught this, but it seems so true. And that thought opens the window on a scene full of optional possibilities.
Your analogy of life being like a trust fund is fresh and perceptive. I still struggle a bit with some of the questions we’d be asking of the financial manager or of the doctor. How much time/money is left? The manager would answer this question quite directly. The doctor, maybe, not so much. I’m thinking of specific individuals I know who have “fought” cancer and gone on to live long and productive lives afterward. One of these was my former mother-in-law who endured a mastectomy in the late 1960’s. She went on to die— essentially of old age— in 2005. Another friend of mine “fought” cancer aggressively with chemo and radiation in the early 1980’s. She elected to have a lumpectomy, rather than the radical mastectomy that was prescribed. She is alive and well today. Smart, and carefully thought out choices on her part. But the battle she endured was hellacious. Of course, I don’t know specifically what kind of statistics and prognoses were available to either of these women. But I’m glad they didn’t embrace death too soon.
The New Yorker article that you linked to made me think about my mother’s death and the lead-up to it. She so surprised me when she was given an option of death or dialysis. The description of life with dialysis that I heard from the doctors did not sound anything at all like the life she had always espoused. But I discovered how strong the lure of hope is and how denial translates plain English.I like Susan Block’s question: “what level of being alive is tolerable to you.” I wish I could revisit our discussions with my mom’s doctors. I wonder if there would have been an opportunity to lay things out for her differently and to have allowed her to embrace death more gracefully. She surely left unfinished business and neither absolved or was absolved by her oldest child.
Personally, I think that my childhood provided some good lessons in embracing death. As you point out: road kill, butchering, hunting, loss of pets and livestock, these are all opportunities to see and think about death. So far, I’ve been able to embrace the death of loved ones without much fear or anger. Observers find my lack of crumpled emotion an indication of coldness or insensitivity, and I’ve wondered if they were right. But I simply accept the reality and inevitability of death. We all know it is coming. We just don’t know when. That said, I have yet to discover if I will embrace my own impending death with the same grace. That is the question!
It’s so true that our parents aren’t equipped to teach us how to embrace dying. I would add that we, in turn, don’t know how to teach our own children how to embrace dying. This made me think, we should have courses on “dying” in school. But given the infinite religious connotations of death, that’s never going to happen. So how can we promote a graceful approach to death? I find myself wanting to share your posts with all my friends, but I hesitate in most cases. I don’t want to impose my own views about such a personal matter. And yet, it is such a vastly important topic and so under-studied that I want to know that people I care about at least have the opportunity to think about it rationally. As you point out, death is one reality that we all share. So I think, oh, Dia MUST write a book with all these posts compiled in one place. Then I could gift my friends the book. Hmmm. Perhaps a whole solid book sitting on the coffee table would be too imposing. Perhaps it would end up wedged between all the other must-read books on the book shelf. The beauty of your blog may be that we get small doses in digestible quantities with plenty of time in-between to let the mind tread new paths and look into those scary shadows a little bit at a time. I guess I will continue to recommend your blog to my friends and hope they will drop by.