I was companioning an elderly woman who was as sweet as can be. She was tiny and greeted every caretaker that entered her room with a warm hello. She and I became fast friends. She would lean close to me and say "Its a shame we didn't meet 20 years ago, think of the fun we could have had." I looked forward to being at her side as this experience unfolded for her. I was very surprised one day when she grabbed my arm and looked pleadingly into my face and said, "I don't deserve this." I said, "Tell me more." She said, "I don't deserve to die. What did I do to deserve this?" I was speechless. She was 87 had a very loving family and by all accounts had led a life much like many of us. It makes me sad that so many see death as a punishment or something horribly wrong, even at the end of a good life.
One of my favorite quotes on this subject is something to the effect of "The adult afraid of death is not some odd bird, but someone whose culture has not knit them the protective garments to withstand the icy winds of mortality." Our culture is most assuredly not in the business of knitting us cozy cocoons to enter our deaths in a calm and accepting way. We are animals after all. We have completely lost connection with our animal selves who are of the natural world. Think of woodland creatures who go off to some quiet shade under a big oak to quietly slip away under the great big sky. Animals know when their time is here and go off on their own to peacefully exit. There are some cultures of the human kind that have similar death rituals. The Inuit come to mind. Their elders chose when it was their time and headed out onto an ice floe under a midnight sky and drifted out to sea. The contrast between these stories and our own culture are profound. It is as if we have forgotten that we know how to die. We know how to do this.
After my sweet friend passed, I was talking with a nurse at the facility about her feeling that death was a punishment. I asked if he had seen this before. He said, "She did not do her homework. When people come here and they haven't thought about death or prepared for it, they aren't ready for it and they hang on. Some people have done their homework and make a peaceful exit." He went on to tell me that his mother had died when he was 9, right in front of him. He had sat with her dead body for a while before anyone else arrived. He was from somewhere in Africa. He went on to tell me that because of this he had a great fear of dead bodies. He knew he had to face this fear to be comfortable working in the healthcare field as well as face his own eventual mortality. He prepared himself and eventually confronted his fear and moved beyond it. He said we all have to face our own demons in our own way, but if we don't they will still be there for us at the end. His words have been swirling around my head ever since. I want to be clear that I am not blaming my client or anyone who has trouble accepting that they will one day die. But I think it behooves us all to think about it because it will inform the way we live our lives and that is death's greatest gift. What is the homework we have to do around death? How do we go about knitting our own cocoons that make death more acceptable?