March 9, 2010
No, this is not one of those dreams of mine. One has to be a bit serious once in a while, you see. So, let me give it straight but in small doses so you can stop yourself from feeling overwhelmed.
I often ask people young and not so young what kind of death they would like to die and almost everyone blurts out something like this: “I want to die in my sleep”; “I want to die a natural death at 80”, “I want a peaceful death without any illness or disability.” Sounds good, right? Just one look around and we know that this hope for a ‘good death’ is many a times reduced to wishful thinking, that’s all. Well, there is nothing wrong in aspiring for a great ending. However, given the harsh reality of today, there is wisdom in hoping for the best but also in being prepared for the worst.
So, how does one prepare for the worst case scenario, you may wonder. It can be done and it is too darn important. Many things in life are uncertain and we do not know what lies ahead but one thing is certain and that is death. Everyone who is born has to die whether we like it or not. In our attempts to blindly ape the western way of life, we are not too far from becoming an ‘age-defying, death-denying culture.’ We conveniently use terms like ‘passed away’ and ‘expired’ when we refer to someone’s death. It is about time we learnt say the ‘D’ word without hesitation.
As a child I was too afraid of death of loved ones as well as my own death. I didn’t quite like attending funeral services, because I remember crying and wailing made me very uncomfortable. As years rolled by, I discovered I’m much more at ease talking about death than most of my counterparts. Today, due to my engagement with hospice work, I can confidently think about my own funeral (like I did in my last posting) without any qualms. Part of my job is to assist people in having a good death despite their debilitating illness or other painful realities.
Fear of death and death anxiety are common seen in people of all ages. They are more intense in patients who have been given a death sentence- Yes, that’s what it is. It was not too long ago that folks used to dread using the ‘C’ word and even when someone did have cancer, they hushed it up -‘shhh, don’t even say it lest you’ll catch the bug” Times are different now, for, there isn’t a family that is not affected by Cancer either directly or indirectly. I am not immune from this dreaded disease either. I now know that not all cancers are preventable and most cancers attack you when you least expect them. I guess that’s why they are called ‘silent killers.’
What makes it worse is that in India, due to ignorance and lack of awareness most cancers are detected in the advanced stages when treatment is not an option. Some cancers can be detected early due to the symptoms they manifest no doubt, but in most cases however, the person is completely oblivious to the minute changes that occur in the body until they become malignant or reach the point of no return.
Diagnosis of Cancer is often done after much prying and prodding. Then they cut and discard that which is not needed and finally radiate and pump chemicals into the body to kill the unwanted demons. Just when the family has been drained psychologically, spiritually and financially, comes the final verdict like a bolt of thunder- “Sorry, we’ve tried everything medically possible and there’s nothing else we can do.” At this point the patient and the family feel all alone- ‘we have to fight our own battle now.’
“I will never see my son graduate from college” or “I will not be able to hold my grand-child in my arms” are some painful facts people have to reckon with after they receive the death-sentence. “Why me?”, “What have I done to deserve this?” are questions which cannot easily be answered. People diagnosed with this dreaded disease as well as their families go through shock- ‘May be it is a mistake’, ‘I cannot have cancer’, ‘may be the biopsy results are wrong’; or denial- ‘My mother is such a wonderful human being, this is not fair’. Folks take their own time to transition from the state of shock, anger and denial to acceptance and when they do, they are at peace- with themselves, their creator and their loved-ones. They admit “I am going to die.”; “I have something for which there is no cure”, “I have to get ready to say good bye to my family.” Assisting them to get to this juncture is what a hospice or palliative care team does on a daily basis.
We hear motivational speakers and spiritual gurus talk about living well or living one’s life to the fullest. Believe me, there’s nothing wrong in it. My philosophy is that if you prepare people for dying well, they will invariably start living well too. A good death is therefore closely related to a good life.
By the way, have you ever written your own eulogy? That would be a good exercise to do if you’re afraid of death. Write your own epitaph or the newspaper announcement of your own death and before you know it, you will be a pro on thenatology (i.e., the art and science of death and dying, in simple words).
Having been a witness to all the commotion that takes place after death in the line of work I am in, I tell you, it is not too late to start planning if you have not already done so. A lot of misunderstandings, fights and arguments can be prevented if you make your wishes known in advance. Advance Directives are a set of instructions you leave to the family or your caretakers to help them make decisions about your life when you are not in a position to make those decisions yourself. For example, if you are in an accident and are brain dead and do not want to be hooked to a bunch of machines and tubes that perform all the vital tasks like breathing for you, put it in writing! You will save your loved-ones unnecessary burden of guilt and heart aches.
Tell your family about your final wishes- Tell them if you want to be cremated or buried; let them know if you wish to donate your organs after death. Truly, we don’t need any of those after we die. If someone can see through your eyes, why not give them the gift? Won’t it be cool to be the light of someone’s eyes? Consent from loved ones is also needed (in India) if you plan on donating your body or other organs after death. Talk to the family and convince them before you put it in writing, it is the family or the legal guardian who has to fulfill your final wishes after you’re gone!
Planning for your end does not make death come sooner; it only means you’re well prepared when it does happen. So, start thinking about your own mortality, make plans and jot them down with all the intricate details. This will give your loved-ones enough time to dwell on all the fond memories they have of you instead of running around (like a headless chicken) making arrangements! Why rob them of quality time they can spend reminiscing about the deceased loved one?
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