Die? What FOR?
CEOLC Secretary & Co-Founder | End of Life Midwife | Certified by The Conscious Dying Institute, Denver Hospice
Think about it…from the time we are born we are taught to see life as a series of lily pads. Each pad is a temporary foothold which allows us to move on to the next pad. We study hard so we can progress from one grade to the next. We go to university so we can get a good job. We work hard in our jobs so we can earn enough money and be promoted. We earn enough that we can support a family. We raise kids so they can have productive lives. We put enough money aside to retire and travel. And so on…
We are a goal-oriented society. Rather than seeing the merit of the journey, we invest time and energy toward attaining the next goal. True, we may enjoy elements during the forward motion, but our eyes are still focused on the finish line of that phase. Is it any wonder, therefore, that Americans find it so difficult to think about death in any kind of positive manner? With the exception of those who believe that living a good life positions them for an achievable afterlife, there is nothing to achieve in “doing a good job at dying.”
The term “mindfulness,” is popular these days. Most often it is used to describe the concept of being in the moment. Enjoying what you are doing. Feeling what you are feeling. Really tasting what you are eating, and so forth. It is a call to slow down and smell the flowers rather than picking them for a vase you plan to make in the next ceramic class you sign up for. The call to live mindfully is poetic but in a society that celebrates forward thrust the person who slows down is going to be passed by. Being passed by wouldn’t matter if there weren’t fabulous destinations and prizes that go to the fleetest. This mindset creates challenges when it comes to dying.
As an end-of-life midwife, I am interested in helping people experience the best death possible. If I were a potential client, I might ask, “Why should I care what my death is like?” Within the context of our now-leading-to-next culture, the easiest answer to give is that, if a client works with me, death can be less painful, stressful, and frightening. Here is how I project the rest of the conversation might unfold:
(Client) “Why can’t the doctors just give me enough medication to make dying less painful, stressful, and frightening? Wouldn’t that be easier?”
(Me) “Easier isn’t always better. You can learn so much and grow so much if you are committed to making your dying the best death possible.”
(Client) “What difference does it make if I learn and grow if I’m just gonna die?
In a culture where everything worthwhile has an immediate discernable payoff of some sort, a discussion about the merits of doing a good job dying, appears moot. In order for the conversation to be meaningful, “death” needs to be identified in a way that acknowledges that this is the end of life’s journey. Death IS the destination a person works all his life to achieve. Everything else—all the previous steps and stages—were not simply to get to the next lily pad, but to get us to THIS lily pad.
This is an imperative concept for those seeking to experience a “good death.” It is the focus of much of the work done by end-of-life doulas, who strive to help the dying and his family understand that “arriving” in this place is an achievement that deserves celebrating.
End-of-life doulas work with the dying, guiding them toward contemplation that is facilitated by the slowing of the body and ebbing of energy. This is when a dying person can knit together the pieces of their life experience. Through narrative, and sometime pictures, the roundness and richness of life comes into focus. What might once have been seen as coincidences take their place in a quilt that is perfectly knit together. Reviewing the wholeness of the panoramic makes it clear that it is complete. Even those portions that appear thin, ragged, or missing, tell stories. Poetically, this quilt is the absolutely unique shroud that will overlay the vacated body.
A good death can bring a sense of completion to a life well-lived and a job well-done. When shared with others who are invested in listening, the period of time before death becomes oral history. Altogether different than appearing as a name on a family tree, this is the time granted for the dying to share stories in their own voice. These stories are one last gift to the living, who will remember the dying family member as a rounded character who experienced every emotion accessible to humans. When the last page is turned, the storyteller has earned the right to sigh and settle.
Of all the gifts made possible by a doula-led life-review, perhaps the greatest is bringing about closure…the place where the dying understand that there is no need for a “next step.” The frenetic movement of life is giving away to a time when movement is no longer called upon, supported, or necessary.
And all is exactly as it should be.