Dying – an Unhappy Affair?

Why do we, as a culture, have such a difficult time discussing, respecting, understanding death?

 In the past few years I’ve watched two close relatives die – my father and my mother-in-law. Neither of these deaths was pretty or dramatic, the only two ways I’ve seen death explored in our visual media – T.V. and movies. After being with my dad on the day he died, I now watch media death scenes with derision.

 Yeah, sure, the character’s dying of cancer, but she’s wearing lipstick and can talk to her loved ones seconds before she takes her last breath.

Or, oh, watch the cowboy/drug dealer/policeman take a bullet and stumble, then look out at his rescuers or killers and tell them exactly what they want to hear before his heart stops.

Even our most gruesome shows, like CSI or Bones, show the dead person after he or she’s died. I guess it’s easier to go after the bad guy than watch the slow painful effects as the victim slowly succumbs.

Of course, there are a few exceptions. Meryl Streep plays a woman ravaged by cancer in Anna Quindlen’s book-turned-into-a-movie, One True Thing, about the death of a perfect mom.  She slowly loses weight, and hair, and dignity as her life winds down to a hospital bed in the living room. Now that’s real death in America, though for some it ends in a sterile hospital room loaded with metallic devises meant to prolong the agony of dying. Either way, it’s not pretty. It’s hard, hard work. Like birth.

Are we meant to work so hard at dying? Granted, it should never be easy to die; most of us want to live forever, always able to enjoy a sunlit spring morning, a lover’s embrace, a child’s smile, a dog’s unconditional love.

But we weren’t built to last forever. Our bodies wear down, our hearts weaken, our minds turn vague.  Back in the ‘old days,’ like a century or so ago, I think dying wasn’t such a slow process. We didn’t have pills to keep the ticker ticking, chemotherapy to keep the tumor smaller, long-term health facilities to keep the dying alive no matter what. My mother-in-law’s cancer had progressed beyond rescue, and at 84, she was aware that her life was at an end. But chemotherapy was used to keep her alive for ‘at most six more months.’ For five months, she suffered through bleeding sores in her mouth and esophagus, severe nausea and vomiting, weakness and debilitating fatigue. Was it worth it – those last five months of doling out poison to keep her alive?

I guess that’s the question we should all be asking ourselves, even when we’re in our 30’s and 40’s and 50’s and feeling blessed with the joy of life.

  • When does quality of life end, and living ‘just to still be breathing’ begin?
  • How important is our life, and when does it become unimportant?
  • How much should we suffer, and do we need to suffer to have lived a full life?
  • Why are we born, and why do we die?

Perhaps if our culture wasn’t so afraid to ask these questions, dying wouldn’t be such an unhappy affair.

And we’d understand the astonishing link between birth … and death.

2 thoughts on “Dying – an Unhappy Affair?

  1. Thoughtful interesting post, Pam. I think Imperfect Endings by Zoe F. Carter might interest you. Very powerful, and she was our keynote luncheon speaker last year for Women’s National Book Association’s MEET-THE-AGENTS event in San Francisco. I wrote a review of her book that you can read by pasting this link into your browser: http://telltalesouls.com/blog/imperfect-endings/
    When you have time to read it, let me know what you think.


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