Let’s talk about death.
Because we don’t.
Somehow it’s not acceptable to talk about death, almost as if it’s bad manners, or maybe just that you’re going to make someone uncomfortable by talking about it because death is something we all hope to avoid. Today, anyway! Maybe we think that if we don’t talk about it, don’t even think about it, then it won’t happen. Which is equivalent to a child covering their eyes to hide and thinking nobody can see them.
Death is certain. It’s inevitable, inescapable, unavoidable.
Yes, yes, I know that, but let’s deal with it when it comes along, and, look, it’s not coming any time soon, right?
I don’t have the impression that death is difficult for the dead, but, then, what do I know? I’ve never talked to a dead person. Or, more accurately, no dead people have ever talked to me.
Dying, on the other hand, can be really difficult. I’ve seen difficult deaths, been present through those final weeks, days, minutes of final struggle. Some of those deaths make the moment of death like a release, a final end to suffering.
And death is difficult for the living. It’s loss, emptiness, sadness, distress, grief….It changes the lives of the living permanently. Life is not the same after death.
But life is never the same anyway. Life is a process of constant change. Even in the midst of our most fixed habits and routines, life changes. Relationships are formed, relationships fall apart, new jobs appear, old jobs go, people enter our lives, and they leave, some temporarily, some permanently. Isn’t death just one of those changes? A kind of ultimate experience of transience?
How many deaths have you witnessed?
I’ll never forget the first time I had to certify someone as dead. As a Junior Doctor working in a hospital, one of my responsibilities was to confirm that a patient had died, and initiate the formal recognition of their death, writing in their case file “Time of death” and entering the time I declared it. The first time for me I was called, as on call doctor, at about 3am, to a ward I’d never visited before. An elderly patient there, whose death was expected, had just died. It was my responsibility to examine him for signs of life. I took my time. I didn’t want to get it wrong! I listened to his chest for a long time, but couldn’t hear any heart beats. I tested for various reflexes and got not response. I stared long and hard into his eyes, using a device called an ophthalmoscope, shining a light onto his retinae to look for the signs of death I’d been trained to see. Finally, I was convinced. Looked at my watch, and retired to the little office at the end of the ward to write the formal statement of my examination and the date and time of his death. As I walked back along the empty main corridor I began to think about what I’d just experienced. I wondered whether or not it was true that we each have a soul, and whether or not that soul hovers around the body for a little time after death, before departing. I wondered if the man’s soul had been hovering around behind me, as I checked his body for signs of life. I wondered if his soul might have started to follow me from the bedside to the office, and maybe, now, as I walked down this empty corridor. I started to walk faster and wondered whether or not a soul could keep pace with a living person. My heart started to beat faster and as I turned into the on call rooms corridor to go to bed I flicked on the light switch in the stair well and “bang!” the light bulb flashed on then immediately went out again. Well, that spooked me! I ran up the dark stairs taking two or three steps at a time, fumbled as I tried to get my key into the on call room door, eventually managing, throwing the door open wide, then slamming it hard behind me. As I stood, breathing heavily, with my back to the door, I suddenly thought. “Hey, surely ghosts can walk through walls!” At that point I realised how absurd it was to be imagining such things. Took me a while to settle though!
I’ve seen many deaths since then. I don’t think it ever became routine. I didn’t imagine souls hovering around me any more, but I always found the experience disturbing. Maybe that’s just normal.
For most of us we won’t have experienced many deaths directly. When they happen, they are significant events. They feel like something has gone wrong. Maybe somebody is to blame. Maybe someone has failed. Maybe we even feel the dead person has failed….failed to rage against the dying of the light.
When you talk to people who have had an encounter with death, a near miss, a sudden, or unexpected one, brought on by an accident or an illness, it’s not uncommon that they will say it’s made them realise how precious life is, how fragile, how maybe until that moment they hadn’t really known that. Well, known it as a sort of fact, but not known it as a person. There’s a difference. Maybe they’ll say they’d have a wake up call. A wake up call to what? To the knowledge of the shortness of life. They might say it’s made them realise that if they want to make the most of life, then it might be a good idea to start now.
Or they might have a heightened sense of reality, of the unpredictability of life, or even of the inevitability of its ending.
Thinking about death because you’ve survived a serious accident, recovered from a serious illness, or have just experienced the death of a loved one, a friend, or a colleague, can make you re-evaluate your life.
Re-value your life.
Feel how precious and fragile it is and decide to make some changes, to stop procrastinating, to stop living this way in the hope that one day, in the distant future, you’ll be able to live a different way.
That’s the gift of death. The gift of life.
Do we have to go through such an experience to get there? Can we only wake up, reassess our choices and values by having personal encounters with death? Or can we make such decisions, initiate such changes, by thinking about death, or talking about it?
If you knew you had one year left to live, what would you do differently?
Stephen Levine, who passed away in January, 2016, wrote a best selling book entitled “A Year to Live” where he describes the process of living as if you have only one year left. Many people have followed his programme since.
But the whole idea of thinking about death as a way to a better, or should I say, more considered, life, goes all the way back to Socrates (there are whole schools of thought on this subject from many other cultures too)
In the Phaedo Plato has Socrates claim that in death the soul is released from the impure and contaminated body, and thus becomes able to attain pure knowledge of Truth. In the dialogue Socrates says: “It really has been shown to us that, if we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom…”
Thus according to Plato upon death the philosopher achieves that which he has been striving for his entire life. Because of this Plato has Socrates claim that the practice of philosophy in life is really a dress rehearsal for what comes in death: “…those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying, and they fear death least of all men.”
Since the time of Socrates and Plato philosophy has assisted countless individuals confront their own mortality, and provided consolation in the face of what many consider the greatest of all evils – death.
A related train of thought is wondering what you would do differently if somebody you knew had only a year left to live. What if that somebody was your mum or dad, a brother or sister, a lover, partner or friend?
And what if it wasn’t a year? What if it was five years, or, ten? Would that change anything? Would either of those scenarios lead to different choices?
So, a little contemplation on death from time to time, might have a serious impact on both the way we live, and the way we are with others.
You know, I think there’s an awful lot more we could consider down this road, but maybe that’s enough for now.
Before I finish, though, when I was researching life expectancy figures for the articles I was writing about health, I discovered that a male Scot aged 65 (that’ll be me in a few months time!) has a life expectancy of a further 19. 7 years. When I read that I had mixed feelings. I mean twenty years seems quite a long time, right? But on the other hand, it feels as almost no time at all! But what I realised I was doing with that figure was considering it as an end point. I thought, well I might just see the start of 2040 then! But then I read what “life expectancy” is. It’s a median. That means that in 19.7 years time, 50% of male Scots, aged 65 today, will be have died. But 50% will live beyond that timescale. It’s not an end point. It’s the 50/50 point!
Hey, how human is it to grasp at offer of hope?! (Well, that’s another subject to consider….the importance of hope)
OK, this is like a PPS but I must tell you about the patient I saw one day. I knew her from previous visits, but this day she seemed particularly out of sorts. I asked her what was bothering her and she said “My husband’s been diagnosed with cancer. He’s been told he’s got six months to live”
I sympathised with her and asked how that news had made her feel. Her reply took me completely by surprise.
“I’m angry. Really angry. I mean how come he gets to know how long he’s got and I don’t get to know how long I’ve got?!”
We had an interesting conversation about uncertainty after that!