“Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the ‘dying role’ and its importance to people as life approaches its end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, settle relationshiops, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay. They want to end their stories on their own terms. This role is, observers argue, among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind. And if it is, the way we deny people this role, out of obtuseness and neglect, is cause for everlasting shame. Over and over, we in medicine inflict deep gouges at the end of people’s lives and then stand oblivious to the harm done.” – Atul Gawande, “Being Mortal”
I think most people would agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the general American culture approaches death. It may not be easy to put your finger on the exact issue but we can all feel it underneath the surface. We hide death and sometimes deny it exists. We bury our heads in the sand like children instead of recognizing a very simple truth: You will die.
Our medical system seeks to preserve life, no matter how much suffering is involved at all costs. Quantity rules the day and quality is irrelevant. Children lose their retirement and savings to keep an ailing parent alive but unconscious and attached to tubes for a few more weeks or months. We push the dying into hospitals and away from life and home. We hide them and come up with euphemisms that hide the truth: Your loved ones will die.
Money is funneled into funeral services and homes where chemicals are pumped into corpses to make them seem almost alive. We hide the dying process, the breakdown of our bodies, and the return of the elements that make us up to nature. All to avoid facing the uncomfortable truth: I will die.
This broken system wreaks our psyche. We are unprepared for reality when it strikes. We don’t talk to our aging family members about how they want their remaining days to play out, what they value, and at what point the suffering isn’t worth the longevity. We leave homes cluttered, money unspent, conflicts unresolved, and love unspoken because we always think there will be tomorrow. We go to great lengths to provide hope when we should be realistic. Then, when death comes we aren’t ready emotionally, physically, or economically. It always catches us by surprise even when the signs were there for months or years.
People are starting to seek out a better way. A way that recognizes there is more to life than living another day. Death is a natural process, not a medical one. As the natural process of life starts to get shorter it becomes increasingly important to prioritize the present, joy, happiness, satisfaction, love, experiences, and peace. Safety should not be prioritized. I think the grandpa in “Little Miss Sunshine” had it right:
- Frank (to grandpa): You started snorting heroin?
- Grandpa: I’m old! And don’t you start taking that shit. When you’re young, you’re crazy to do that stuff.
- Frank: What about you?
- Grandpa: What about me? I’m old! When you’re old you’re crazy not to do it.
But instead of embracing our immortality and recognizing that it is basically a blank check to make the most out of each day we pretend that it isn’t so. We don’t prepare ourselves or our loved ones. It is never too early to talk about these things and face mortality head-on. A young age is no excuse. People my age, people I have known, are dead already. Wealth, position, and age may be able to figure out an average age of death, but none of us are average. There is a possibility that you or I am near the end of the bell curve… maybe that means living to 100 but maybe that means dying this year.
It is best to be prepared and to look yourself in the mirror each morning and say:
“I am going to die. There is no changing that, but I get to decide if I am going to truly live.”
Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a Snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail?
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”