An Open Letter to Arthur S. Brisbane at the NYT
Book Day Among the TGB Elders

Contemplating My Death

category_bug_journal2.gif Last Saturday on the Interesting Stuff post, I suggested an episode of the BBC World Service radio program, The Forum, about contemplating one's own death.

Since listening to it (you can do that here), I haven't been able to let go of the show and the ideas expressed therein but perhaps that is because I have thought about my own death almost every day since childhood. Diana Athill's “money quote” from the program is not new to my experience:

"I don’t think you have to think very deeply about it [death] but I do think you have to think about it fairly regularly. Someone said, ‘You ought to think about death for about 15 minutes every day.’ I think that’s overdoing it, but I do think that saying to yourself, ‘What do I think about death?’ fairly regularly, familiarises you with the idea so that you’re no longer frightened about it.

That has worked for me.

I recall lying in bed one particular night at about age nine or 10, heart beating a zillion miles per minute and barely able to breathe so great was the fear in knowing that someday I would no longer exist.

It was not the first nor the last time I was caught in that waking nightmare as a kid. It was a constant worry, terror really, and I determined then that somehow I would rid myself of the fear of my death because there was no way I could live an entire life (yes, I understood the irony/humor in saying that) so deeply frightened every day about dying.

Those were the years of my religious instruction but even as a kid, I never bought the idea of heaven and hell. If, as they told me, god made us in his image and loved us unconditionally, I did not see how he would consign his children to the fires of hell no matter what sins they had committed. And no loving god would make heaven as boring as it sounded either. Where would I go swimming or ride my bike?

Such thoughts pretty much ended my religious belief in general and that of an afterlife.

Since childhood, I have mostly taken my cues about life and death from the world around me – we all see it every day. A seed is planted, a flower blooms spectacularly, fades and dies. A carrot grows, passes on its life-giving properties and thereby fulfills its destiny.

The animals, too, return to the earth in the end and as I worked through these and a thousand other thoughts about dying through the years, I saw and see no reason to think it is different for humans.

But what is different about us is that unlike the plants and animals, we know of our future destruction - although sometimes I'm not so sure. Perhaps in ways we cannot conceive, they do understand - and accept.

In 1996, my cat Beau Bennett, just a few months shy of 20, died in my arms of old age. He had no interest in food during his final week and he could no longer walk, but he had no trouble making it clear that he wanted to be with me.

In those few last days and nights, we sat quietly together as much as possible, me remembering all our wonderful good times and who is to say that is not what Beau was doing too. I don't know, but I choose to believe that he understood and accepted that he was at the end of his life.

On the BBC show, poet Paul Muldoon related a story of the “sense of repose” he felt when, once, he was on an airplane that, it seemed for a bit, would crash. In the face of certain death, he said, his death became “okay.”

Something similar happened to me; I wrote about it on this blog a few years ago:

Talking with my friend Sandy as we walked down Bleecker Street in New York City, I gestured widely with my arms to make a point as I stepped backward. Instead of pavement, there was the emptiness of an entrance to a store cellar - a large, square hole in the sidewalk.

As I fell backward, I managed to brace myself against the building with one arm and could see below that it was a deep cellar with many, steep concrete steps. I would surely die as my body crashed to the floor.

Sandy caught my other arm and tried to pull, but she was wearing new, smooth-soled sandals that kept slipping so that she could get no purchase on the ground. My arm against the building was slipping too and in a span of no more than ten seconds, I went from blind, paralyzing fear (oh, shit, I'm going to die right now) to perfect calm and acceptance (it's okay, I can do this).

Then I deliberately let go of the wall to fall to my death.

But a miracle happened. (I don't believe a god is necessary for miracles.) Two strong hands caught me in the middle of my back and gently lowered me, unharmed except for a scraped elbow, to safety and continued life.

What often comes to mind now when I ponder death is the memory of that perfect calm and acceptance. I have no idea if my lifelong work to overcome my fear of dying helped me reach that acceptance, and knowing I am not alone in such feelings in the face of imminent death leaves it an open question.

The BBC show is important in that almost no one talks about the greatest tragedy of human existence. It is a social faux pas to bring up death with others. We go to great lengths to hide it from public view. Hardly anyone dies at home anymore and few families hold wakes, certainly not with the corpse in attendance as in the past.

In the U.S., funeral directors who, in more honest times, were called morticians and undertakers, are now grief counselors effectively removing the dead person from the event.

So congratulations to the BBC for bring this subject front and center and with such thoughtful participants. Me? I'm going to keep thinking about death every day and hope that when my time comes, I will muster the courage I felt on Bleecker Street.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claire Jean: Seasons


Comments

I have no fear or reluctance to think or talk of death either. I expected actually do die before I reached the age of 30 and it came as a surprise to me that I made it past that and went on. I made no more prognostications as to when it might happen but now am aiming to around my late 80s as not sure I have the fortitude to be a really old person and it does take toughness to accept decrepitude which often comes with extreme old age. Death doesn't scare me as much as that does.

As to what happens when we die, I have gone through many ways of thinking about that and leave it now as a mystery with 'nothing' the most probable answer. It is one of the pluses of dying-- we will finally know and if we don't know, that's a kind of knowing too. I thought that when my mother died-- now she knows. Of course, maybe she didn't but she had gone where I had yet to go but will also.

We have discussed what will happen after we die to our possessions and our bodies. I am one who favors cremation but I still haven't figured out where I want the ashes to go. Not in an urn for sure ;) but possibly a biodegradable little box that can be put in water or the ground and it will all dissolve. For awhile I thought if I die while on this farm I want to have the ashes put in the ground back where we bury the cattle who have died here of old age or other causes. I'd like that just fine. Into a big body of water is good too. The biodegradable container is because I've heard it's hard on the ones left behind when they 'sprinkle' what isn't really just ashes but also bone bits. The containers I saw on their online site looked nice. This body has served me well and I want it disposed of properly ;) but have no desire for a gravesite which we actually do own as it's in the little cemetery a mile and a half from our farm and where both sets of parents are buried as well as many friends from here. I don't like the idea of being in the ground and as they say-- mouldering in the grave. No thanks.

I've had similar moments of terror; the one I remember best occurred while I was reading Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". I think about death often (not every day) and some days I feel acceptance and some days I feel very sad, but I rarely feel that terror I used to experience in thinking of my own death. Now it comes when I worry about something happening to my children. Mostly I feel frustrated because I'm curious and I want to know "what happens".
But you're so right ... facing things, including death, honestly takes a lot of the sting out of them.

Years ago at age 39, I was diagnosed with cancer. For several years after that, while waiting to see if it would recur, I lived in terror of death. It was extremely unpleasant. However, I survived, and now I'm old.

I hope very much to achieve a state of peace when my time comes to die, fortunately at the natural time of old age. Yes, I think about it every day for a moment or two.

Ronni, I understand that acceptance feeling. At age 22 I was on a "first date" on an Islander sailboat in Biscayne Bay, Florida. Florida is notorious for endlessly good weather and many boaters don't acquire the necessary skills for handling weather problems. (the expression "fair-weather sailor" comes to mind). None of us on the boat had any "storm experience".

In the middle of my lovely boating date the sky went from perfectly sunny to pitch black and suddenly our boat was in the center of a huge squall. None of us were wearing life vests and the boat owner almost went over the side trying to get the sail down. The boat spun around like a toy top and seemed like it was certain to capsize. Here is the weird thing...in the midst of this I (like you) felt no terror. I remember clearly thinking "oh, so this is how I will die, that's interesting". I was more calm than I had ever been and completely "accepting". Maybe Mother Nature gives us that intelligence and sometimes we tap into it (perhaps under the most dire circumstances). I say "sometimes" because most other times in my life I have been completely wiggy about the idea of leaving before I am ready. :)

I held the hand of each of my parents as they died. My Dad was angry that at age 79, he had incurable liver cancer. He passed away in a coma. My mother's heart began to fail at age 93 and in 2 weeks she died at home. I was amazed at her acceptance of death and her strength as she cared for my dad at home during his illness. She never complained of illness or loneliness. I believe she had a real intuition that other people really don't want to hear about that. At age 67, I have thought of death a lot recently. I was diagnosed with breast cancer after I retired 2 years ago. My fit and thin husband had an emergency quadruple bypass weeks after he retired 3 years ago. The fragility of life is often in our thoughts. I don't think either of us is afraid of death. We are afraid that his federal retirement and my social security will not be there. We wonder now if we should have salted away the money spent on our three children's college educations. I know I do not want to end up like my mother in law. She turned all her assets over to her 2 "favorite" children who moved her 4 times in her last 96th year. Her mind was failing and she did not know us, but she knew what had happened to her. The ones "she cared about" could not even hang a picture or put anything of hers in her college dorm type room. It didn't even have a handicapped bathroom. I don't know how elders protect themselves from parasites in their last years. I have no confidence in wills. So, as I age, I hope I will make wise decisions and not stick around too long.

We read "Thanotopsis" in 9th grade ... and it solved all my problems. I loved the poem's advice to "... go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."

This poem brought me to the realization that I was not religious, so had no fear of a heaven or a hell, but only in the basic realities in what the brief life we and all other living things have. This ended all my fears.

And when I faced a loaded gun held by a drunken, enraged (former) husband and told him to go ahead a shoot that I wasn't afraid to die ... I realized that I wasn't. I have kept this with me all my life, and still firmly believe it.

Like Mike above, I think the fear of dying for most people is a religious conviction of a life after. Were they good enough to go to heaven, with most being programmed by the the church to think they never really were. So the fear seemed more real that hell was their destiny upon death.

Like you Ronni I too have dismissed the religious notions I was raised with about life after death. My only dread about dying is that it is long and painful without the ability to end it on my terms because of the will of a state that holds the religious view that only God can take a life.

There are worse things than death: being bedfast and incapacitated, losing your mental faculties, being in constant pain, having no control of your life. I want to die before these things happen to me.

Tangentially to this important topic, there's a sympathetic description in the NYT today of an effort in Massachusetts to win a Death with Dignity law.

I guess I qualify as religious, but I never much believed in an afterlife so much as a mystery that is somehow grounded in how we live here and now. Death comes; as with everything else, we live better when we dare to face truth. Or at least I do ...

I believe that most of us that have lived to advanced years are more afraid of suffering before dying than of death itself. I have prepared myself as best I can with all of the legal papers that demand that I only be given palliative care when I am terminal. And I have made the decision that if I am a burden and life is no longer enjoyable I will hasten my death if possible.

I do not believe in a hereafter and think that when I die it will be as it was before I was born. I have no fear of death and perhaps my belief is the reason. I will not know anything, so what is there to fear?

When I was 10 years old I was very sick and given only 6 months to live by a doctor. When I overheard my crying mother tell her Aunt about the diagnosis I laughed. I knew I wasn't going to die.

I had an experience similar to yours, Ronni. I was a guest in a home in Danville, CA and I had been sightseeing in San Francisco. I returned to the house after dark and had a heavy backpack on. I had been shopping and the backpack contained bottles of wine and gifts. There was a deep ravine with a narrow bridge that I had to cross to get to the front door and there was no light to see the step up to the bridge. I misjudged and reach for the handrail as I stepped forward. Instead of stepping onto the bridge I stepped into nothing; just air. Luckily a sturdy bush caught my leg. I fell into the bush and if it hadn't held I would have gone into the ravine to certain death. I was literally cradled in the branches of the bush the were projected over the ravine. I didn't have time to contemplate death as I had to get out of that bush and onto solid ground. Only later when I stopped shaking did I think about dying. I was much younger then and I was grateful that I didn't fall. I was not yet ready to die.

Death, of course, comes to us all. I think leaving loved ones is the hard part. The time before death is more dreaded than the actual dying.

I believe I coined this phrase.
Death is life's greatest adventure. I hope I will be able to be lucent and entirely with the process when it comes. Also, if, as I believe, we are all living bits of a living Earth, then who dies?

I, too, lost all fear of death in my mid-forties, when under the bright lights of an operating theatre for emergency surgery, I knew it was a tossup whether I lived or died. I almost giggled as I thought: Grand. I die with all these white-coated people under the bright lights of my stage. LOL.
I too believe this is it. This one wild and crazy precious life.
I am hoping when my time comes there will be options like the Swiss dignity clinics where one can choose when to die and have a great big wake beforehand.
XO
WWW

Ronni--My idea of a great epitaph: 'I leave the world as I entered it: bewildered.' Friend of a friend of Madeleine Albright

I do share the notion that I will never "measure up" in this life. I am convinced, however, that there is One whom I have met, who has already taken the "heat" for my failures large and small. It is my choice whether or not to accept the gift of his doing that for me. I accept.

For me that settles any worries, although not curiosity, about death and an afterlife.

I have spent more thought on the potential suffering that might precede death. In my earlier frenetic days of rearing children and working in a demanding position, I came to the realization that if someone loved me enough to die for me so the essence that is me wouldn't die, then he loved me enough to care about the day-to-day challenges I faced.

Having lived with that assurance in the past, whenever I feel a sense of unease about the scenarios that could lead to death, I choose to trust that he'll help me through.

Right now, I am trusting for the same care for my 92-year-old mother. She has discontinued dialysis that was extremely stressful on her body. Her kidneys at the time she stopped, Oct. 12, were functioning at 7 or 8 percent.

That was 2 weeks ago. She has relished being at home in her own apartment, is comfortable with palliative care provided by hospice and has no plans to accept any more trips to the hospital. She has even begun enjoying breakfast again and occasionally other meals, too. She is at peace with her decision to stop dialysis and choosing to, in her words, "leave it up to God for what happens next."

Once upon a time, I was 18 and almost drowned in Atlantic City. I was fighting like crazy and then finally realized that no one would help me. I remember letting go and thinking "Oh well, I couldn't afford to come here in the first place." In my case, though no one around me helped me, someone did call for a life guard. He dragged me out at the last minute. Later, I almost laughed to think I had such a pragmatic thought in such a dramatic moment, especially for the romantic that I thought I was.
To me, it has always been an amazing mystery how that peace comes and yet, I like to think that it is a way life comforts us in our waning moments. This has always given me great consolation in the face of losing loved ones and in times of great tragic events.

Funny story: The birth of my daughter wound up unexpectedly being a breach, and they had to really knock me out -- the pain was so bad. As I began waking up, I was moving toward a bright light white in the middle of my vision, and there was a loud buzzing sound in my head. Immediately I thought of Emily Dickinson's poem: "I heard a fly buzz when I died." I was sure that I was dead. I was sad to think that I would never see my child but calm and curious about what was happening. Of course, the light was the overhead lights as they wheeled my from the OR, and the buzzing resolved itself into the chatter of the nurses. I just think it's funny that, of all things, I would make a connection with a poem I didn't even knew I remembered,

I was 13 when my father died. I promised myself to never add to the list of those I loved. Loving and then loosing hurt too much. Of course, it was a promise impossible to keep.

I feel it’s a cruel trick of nature for us to realize quite young that we will die.

I am not religious so I don’t dream of entering heaven and have no fear of hell.

Someone once said that there is nothing more democratic than death. Death does not discriminate.

Death does not frighten nearly as much as dying does. I believe most of us are born with a fear of the unknown. This might be an evolutionary trick to keep us away from dangerous places.
So, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about death but instead, try to prepare my self for the transition.

When you are older, the potential for death is always part of your horizon. Ironically, today I received a firm diagnosis of cancer, so the perspective became a bit more immediate. But while my life inexorably will end, I cannot accept that my love will. The physicist within me cannot accept that a few atomic particles can restrict selfless love. As a friend of mine says, "What happened two nanoseconds before the Big Bang?" Love is a question to which logic has no answer.

Thank you for writing this post;as the comments prove,it's important to think about death often -- I do, too maybe about 5 minutes many days -- and it's important to speak/write about thinking about it to so many readers.

Wonderful post Ronni. I haven't had a chance to read all the comments yet but what a great discussion you sparked on! I've long strived to have a positive, mindful outlook on mortality. One of my favorite quotes about death comes from Richard Dawkins -- I'll paraphrase:
"It never bothered me that I didn't exist for millennia before I was born so it certainly shouldn't bother me that I won't exist after my death."

My Mother who died in 1997 at the age of 83 said, "Sheila, there comes a time." Each day as I live, I have to remind myself that at age 68, there will come a time. I only pray - I will be "alive" till the "light switch" is off.

I think about it all the time, too, and WISH I could talk about it with others around me but understand that it isn't really the thing to do. I think it's CRAZY to NOT be talking about it! We're all going to die, people! Maybe talking about it more NOW would actually help!

I just finished reading "Last Acts of Kindness - Lessons for the living from the bedsides of the dying" and it is REALLY good. By Judith Redwing Keyssar. Don't remember who recommended it. Could've been you even.

In hospice situations (and others) she has been at the bedside of many dying people and has wonderful recollections and also advice.

Since people don't seem to want to talk about it much, I think I'll continue with the route of reading books about it. :)

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