On Death: You’d Likely Rather Not Read This

Untitled — Richard Alther, California, 2020

Most people at this moment are safe and healthy. But the pandemic is with us all, front and center. One shudders at reading or hearing of the family unable to be with their mortally-ill relative in the ICU…to share fervent expressions of love…at the least to say farewell. In our day and age, it’s almost unfathomable that tens of thousands of Americans have been thrust into this scene of utter despair.

But for the still-standing-strong among us, we have been confronted “prematurely” with the things we most choose to avoid: death and dying. We all know too well that life ends. We witness it almost as a naturally-occurring event when the departed is a grandparent who has lived a long and full life. As often there is the person who has been long failing, whose passing is a “blessing.” Such a death is usually a relief for the loving, dedicated caregivers. There are the all-too-frequent victims of sudden accidents. It prompts shock in us, bereavement for the victims’ kinfolk, particularly if they are friends. The middle-aged caregivers among us get prompted, if briefly, to consider our own mortality. “We’re next.”

In time, we get on with our lives. Somehow these deaths are “others,” they are not ourselves. Life is demanding for everyone, with ups, downs, joys, challenges, the whole lot. At the top of that list is our children, whether very young or young adults in the prime of their careers or married with children of their own. Our focus is more than overflowing with daily concerns. Our own death or possible disability? Too far off. Not deserving of contemplation beyond, perhaps, executing “living wills.” Life is for the living. Stay strong. Make each day count. This is all for the good.

This is just as true for the elderly, even more so. Take advantage of one’s senior years. “Bucket list” or not, enjoy retirement, golf, bridge, travel, friends, family. Why think ahead? Carpe diem. Except…

When death comes for a loved one, especially a spouse, most people are unprepared for the bottomless hole that descends, and stays in place, usually for years. It has been black-and-white: the person is alive, and then they are gone.

Grief is good, and healthy, to embrace in order to move beyond, gradually, one day at a time, but forward. However, the devastating loss can be a bit softer if there is serious acknowledgment of our mortality well beforehand. We know we’re going to die, someday, but in our conscious, everyday mindset, death is buried. It harbors as an uninvited guest in the basement of our subconscious. So, when it crashes upstairs, it shatters our lives to pieces. Death is usually unspeakable before it happens, and we have little vocabulary to deal with it in the aftermath.

You can lose a parent or a person whose demise is expected and still, there is confronting a void, a physical leaden weight, an unsurmountable wall after the fact.

Such pain and confusion, anxiety or depression needn’t take such a toll. The depth of these feelings can be in direct proportion to the denial of death that is embedded in our culture. This is true also, in a benign way, for religious and spiritual beliefs promising the continuation of life as active souls. This is consoling for millions of us but it nevertheless promotes an underlying fear of death. One could argue the cherished option of an “afterlife,” while commendably soothing, in fact reinforces the finality of death as the very worst fate of being human.

“To die in one’s sleep.” This standard line embodies the essence of our aspirations, as deep as we’re usually willing to engage them in this subject. Death without the misery, so often extenuated, is what we elevate as the ideal. “Live until you die.” And why not hold this as the most worthy goal? It keeps us moving, active in body and mind. Whether we are outgoing and relish our time at “happy hours” or visits in the flesh or Face-Timing and Zooming close friends at a distance…or, on the other hand, we have a preference for solitude, privacy, living apart, immersed in whatever our personal pursuits and interests…everybody has in common the will to live. It is in our DNA to survive.

Even on a deathbed, a person whose life is ending and truly wants this occur is often holding on “for dear life” for the sake of their loved ones. This can be so even if the loved one or ones urge the person “to let go,” that they will be fine once the poor soul is gone. Just by touching and stroking and repeating their words of love can have the opposite effect: the dying one holds on and prolongs their leave-taking.

For the one afflicted, it is not death that is feared but the dying leading up to the final breath. And rightly so. Who wants to suffer? But there are alternatives to make of this a smoother journey if all parties simply allow for the inevitable. To not necessarily hold out for one more difficult treatment…to hold out for the promise of another, as yet, unproven therapy…a second or third opinion…one of many stalling tactics if the dying woman or man has made their peace, and would actually prefer to follow the likely conclusion of their ailment and fate.

People discuss the disposition of their remains: long-established cemetery plots and grave markers and funeral arrangements…to simple cremation, the ashes usually left to the wishes of their survivors. And, of course, there are wills and stipulations, legal and spoken, as to “life support” measures and such. True, these start the conversation and are enormously important. But they are surface concerns.

There lingers the issue of balancing in one’s mind both the reverence for life well-lived, and the departure from it without regrets. It would be as if every now and then, not continuously, not compulsively, we gave more than a passing glance to the fragility of life, the really fleeting gift of life. In so doing, we give a nod to life’s end. We don’t know if it will be abrupt or drawn out, simple or complex, but we place it a smidge higher in our waking lives so that we do not fear death. We don’t fight it against the odds when the odds are overwhelmingly not in our favor. We don’t simply assume the leadership and assertiveness of our loved ones to march into battle on our behalf. And, of course, their doing so is fortified by the avalanche of medical professionals who are trained to do everything possible to prolong life.

We can be the architects of our own end. We can submit when the time comes for that, because we will know in our hearts that it is the right and natural course to take.

Imagine a loving couple with a history of open conversation including this subject on occasion. The blunt reality of one’s passing and the subsequent mourning may or may not be softened for the survivor. But for the sake of the dying one, this passage we all face can lighten fear and allow for acceptance.

This could lend everyone dealing with loss a most helpful and healing measure of peace.

Richard is an artist and the author of five novels. His new book, Bedside Matters, will be published by Rare Bird Books on March 9, 2021: www.richardalther.com.