The Art of Dying . . .
As ghoulish as it might sound, death is the topic of the times. There are Death Cafés, proposed Death with Dignity legislation, and strong new movements, including “slow medicine,” which are intent on reclaiming the “good deaths” of our ancestors and by declining life-prolonging measures. There are doctors calling for new approaches and there are young people with incurable diseases choosing to end their lives.
These discussions are louder than they’ve been for years—probably ever (unless you count the 14th century, when the book Ars Moriendi, the Art of Dying, was the bestseller). Why? Because a tipping point has been reached: Baby Boomers and GenXers are now caught in an unprecedented tide of caretaking both children and parents (not to mention ourselves and our own aging bodies and getting ready for our own darn deaths). We are the first generation to be caught in such a caregiving-and-slow-death crisis.
Indeed, it’s this generation that is focused on death—and with a bit of spunk, too. A recent Pew Research Center study on end-of life issues found that less than half of people over 75 had given much thought to the end of their lives, and incredibly, only 22% of them had written down or talked to someone about medical treatment at the end of their lives. Folks of Pritchett’s generation, though, are embracing the End Shebang: The same Pew study finds a sharp increase in all adults putting something in writing (6 in 10 of us) and thinking through our deaths, which indicates that percentage-wise, it’s the younger folks who are preparing now.
Which is to say: The culture, it’s a-churning. The number of feature stories dealing with caretaking, assisted suicide, and end-of-life decisions are evidence of a new era. People would like to die—and sometimes would like others to die—and this doesn’t make them morbid or crazy or mean. No. They are merciful and kind and ethical. They just want to know how to gracefully accomplish what is going to happen anyway.
As she wrote this, Pritchett was helping her father die, while dealing with her own health-care crisis, making her one of the 28 million Americans who are either getting ready or helping someone else die.
She’s found herself without guidance and in a culture that’s confused. And it’s no wonder: In generations prior, people just, well, they died. Whether it was germs or viruses or cancer, folks were likely to go sooner. With medical intervention and technological wizardry, people are living longer than ever before, and they’re having to make decisions about procedures and medicines and ethics.
The goal, then? A clearer path to death. Whether it’s sudden or expected, whether it’s welcomed or feared, or whether the hang-ups are ethical, financial, practical, or emotional, this book offers some advice on How to Go.
The tone of this book helps guide the way: Humor allows intimacy with fear, makes sensitive issues approachable, helps make taboo topics part of normal conversation. Plus, the Homeworks -- well, they're actually the important kind!
Death, darn it, just happens!
2.5 million people die each year. 250,000 of us die per day. 108 billion people have walked the planet, and then died. That’s a lotta dying! And yet, where are the guidebooks? There are plenty of others out there on far less pressing topics—how to put on makeup, how to juggle, how to organize your desk. But where are the good ones on how to die well?
Pritchett couldn’t find one, so she sat down to write one herself—believing that necessity is the mother of all invention.
Indeed, death is a great and grand mystery, and the actual act of dying is the last physical act of our lives. We can do it well, like a graceful well-rehearsed piano solo--or we can do it clutzy, like that first awkward dance with that middle-school crush. If anything deserves our full attention, some preparation, or some renewed clarity, death might be it.
Death is serious business. And getting bad news really hurts. And coping with fear is no laughing matter. And yet. What else are we to do?
Some of it, in fact, is just plain ridiculous.
In this light-hearted, spunky exploration of the one thing that is certain, Making Friends with Death offers a look at all the uncertainty that precedes this final act.
An Excerpt . . .
My position on death? I’m totally against it.
That said, I will concede I lose that argument, and that moreover, there isn’t much of an argument to be made. Die I will.
And I suppose I simply want those last moment to be graceful, serene, full of equanimity. And frankly, knowing myself as I do, I’m afraid it will be a crazed herky-jerky thing for which I get no second chance.
Thus, I have come to believe that dying deserves our full attention and some preparation. It seems to me, though, that the very contrary is true. We don’t prepare at all, really. How many of us give it serious thought or consider how we want ours to go? Or, if we have thought about it, how many get what we want? Not many: 75% of Americans say that they want to die at home, but only 25% do. And shockingly, fewer than half of people over 75 had given much thought to the end of their lives. Seriously?
I find this frustrating, although I also understand that there are good reasons for this—I’m sympathetic with the human condition, being a human myself. But still: not many Americans are getting the death they want, and the reasons for that is because we haven’t prepared for it, either literally (via legal documents) or emotionally (making peace with it) or strategically (knowing how it’s going to pan out in reality). We either ignore it or say something generic, such as, “if it gets bad, just take me out to a field and shoot me.” But come now, is that realistic?
There are a couple of reasons we shy away from Serious Death Prep, in my opinion:
One: No one comes back to tell us about death, to describe it adequately, or to give us some clues on what best to do. This is why the conversation surrounding death is much like discussing sex with a bunch of virgins; the idea is out there, but it’s lacking in details and information, and those kinds of conversations can lose their appeal.
Two: The human psyche rebels against the idea of its end. Regardless of how much I try to separate from my ego, I am personally going to miss the soul of Laura. I like her, and I know that she likes being alive. I’d just prefer to think about her death, well . . . later.
Three: As humans we are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today. It’s not our fault, really; our poor psyches would flip out if we couldn’t assume some perception of continued time and stability.
Four: We don’t know when or where it will happen. We might choke on a carrot or shot by a jealous lover. We might be diagnosed with leukemia, only to live 20 more years and die from a slip on the ice. How can we plan for something so completely random?
Five: We have a deeply-held, superstitious belief that thinking about it will make it happen. Just as a sports fan fears he might jinx a big game by wearing the wrong color socks, we suspect that writing a will might somehow set in motion a chain of events that will make the reading of the will necessary. We know it’s not logical, but still . . . thinking about death gives some people the squeebyjeebies.
But one day, something happens.
A diagnosis. The death of someone. A simple moment of clarity. We realize that none of those reasons is enough, and that Death might happen, well, today. For some reason, you put down the phone or look your doctor in the eye, and it only takes a few seconds to receive the news, but you are already standing or sitting in another world altogether. It is a scary world. All that time and predictability we’ve depended upon are rendered unsure—and the ground becomes quicksand.
Or at least, that’s what happened to me.
Other Deathy books I love.
One-half of the contemporary books on dying are written by lay people, not doctors—meaning that they’re written by regular people, like me, who felt empowered to take back dying from the docs and advocate for a better way to do this. That, I found inspiring.
My bookshelves are now crammed. The other Making Friends with Death is there, although I'm not Buddhist (although I have my leanings). Some of my favorites include Stiff by Mary Roach and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (and other lessons from the crematory) by Caitlin Doughty, a 20-something mortician who (like me!) has been fascinated with death since childhood. There's What Happens When We Die (by Sam Parnia, MD, PhD) and On Death and Dying (by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD)—that were more what I was looking for, and, then, finally, there came along books that spoke to this cultural zeitgeist of embracing death, such as Katy Butler’s book Knocking on Heaven’s Door about her parents’ death.
But I will say this: Upon putting these books down, even the good ones, I still wasn’t sure how to die. I wasn’t sure what to literally do so that I could “go well.” And I wished for more. Frankly, I wanted something practical. A How-To Guide. A Dummy’s Guide To Death. And it occurred to me that like me, many others are lacking in clear practical guidance, and worse yet, we are living in a culture and time that has an unprecedented pressure on us to do this whole dying thing badly. All this leaves us making nutso decisions, such as prolonging life even if it leads to great suffering for ourselves and for others, dying in all the wrong ways, and leaving huge messes for others to clean up.
So I wrote the one I wanted for me.
Photos by Gene Dodd.
Artwork by Leslie Patterson, and if you should need her awesome talent, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.