Facts of Life

Light and dark. Good and evil. Truth and lies.
If sunrise, then sunset.
Breathe in, breathe out.
If birth, then death.

Despite expectations about life, we fool ourselves if we believe in permanence. In nature, if something begins, eventually it ends. Just look at a picture of yourself as a 10-year-old to see how much things change.

What comes in, must go out (well, maybe that doesn’t apply to clutter, unless you have been bitten by the Marie Kondo bug). If you eat and drink, you will pee and poop. Many people don’t like to think or talk about digestion and elimination. But, they also realize that those actions are part of being human. Can you imagine buying a house that doesn’t have some sort of toilet? If you toured a property and the agent or owner commented: “Oh, that’s gross. How can you even bring it up? We don’t like to talk about that nastiness,” would that explanation be convincing. No toilet, no deal. A commode may represent something reprehensible, but this essential tool serves our human nature.  

Death and dying are other things we’d rather not think about. For many, death is a taboo topic, just like birth used to be. What?!!! Well, just follow that line of reasoning — Hint: It’s the sex / baby connection. A pregnant belly is evidence of sex. Our discomfort with that topic can make “The Talk” spectacularly cringe-worthy.

Keep pulling on that thread, and you come to this other realization:
Life is a sexually transmitted disease that’s ultimately fatal.
Making that connection can be quite an “Oh, s#!t” moment.

Let’s not see, hear, or speak about death.

It’s scary. We’re superstitious. If I say the four-letter D word [DEAD], I might cause it to happen. That would certainly would give us a lot of power, like an unintentional Voodoo practitioner.

Instead, we prefer delusion and magical thinking. Even before COVID-enforced isolation, dying individuals were usually sequestered in a hospital cared for by strangers.

What if …

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. FDR

I believe we can overcome fear by anticipating and speaking about the thing we try to avoid. And the bonus may be your doctor’s respect: “My biggest pet peeve as a physician in critical care is having an end of life discussion with families who never thought about or often even discussed care options until meeting with me. Especially for those 94-year olds or the ones battling metastatic cancer!”

I’m tempting fate by touching the fear by writing a book on end-of-life preparedness called End of Life 101: A Mortal’s Guide to Making Goodbye Good based on my thesis and experiences as a hospital chaplain. But it really goes back to my parents’ and brother’s deaths, which were emotionally devastating and unnecessarily chaotic in different ways. Some planning and preparation would have gone a long way to easing everyone’s pain.

Besides the family examples, during grad school, I had my own close calls – trapped on the metro during fatal fire, having a tree fall in front of the car on the highway, and getting hit by a bus. Those three incidents helped me choose a research topic — awakening to mortality – and raised a question: “What if?” What if I hadn’t survived or didn’t wake up, how much of a mess would I be leaving behind? We assume we’ll live a long healthy life, a soothing fantasy that keeps us from facing our fears and reality, although COVID has certainly raised everyone’s awareness of life’s precariousness.

Life begets death – true, not morbid – but our culture emphasizes the beginning and ignores the ending. I envision EOL101 as a guidebook that covers what to expect and how to prepare. Hundreds of books and websites help with pregnancy and delivery. This will be a counterpart manual for end of life. Not everyone will get pregnant, but everyone who’s alive will die. Does it make sense to prepare for the beginning and get ambushed by the ending? But if we do decide to be proactive, where can we find the information to ready ourselves for this momentous occasion? What are the clear, simple, essential steps to take?

I’m looking for people to interview or respond to the questions below. If you’re interested, post a comment or send an email.

         Have you encountered an end of life situation that was particularly sad or traumatic? Or conversely, one where the dying person was at peace? What made the difference?
         What advice would you give others — I-wish-we-had-known-this-beforehand—about being prepared for end of life?
         Hypothetically, if you were hit by a bus, are your affairs in order so that someone would know what to do without your guidance? What steps have you taken?
         For medical, legal, financial, pastoral care, or organizational experts: Based on your professional expertise, what one thing would you suggest to be better prepared for the end?

After the bus hit me, I kept the cracked bike helmet as a reminder. A plastic and Styrofoam lid protected my head when I skidded across Independence Avenue. While other body parts didn’t fare as well, my brain stayed intact thanks to a $30, you might even say priceless, investment.

I live with the end in mind, having learned, you don’t always get a warning. Who knows what a day might bring? Maybe it’s time to get your end of life act together.  

© Joan S Grey,2 OCT 2020 ∞
IndexCardCure™: Be prepared. It’s not just for the US Coast Guard

One thought on “Facts of Life

  1. Great post, Joan!!! This is a huge subject with which I have had to deal given the demographics of my my patients. I’ve also had several close calls of my own… I’d love to contribute if you think what I say will make a contribution!! Please shoot me an email!!


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