Let me tell you something right now. Dying is NOT the worst thing that can happen to you. Dying is PART of living. In many ways it is the part that makes the living most precious. Life doesn’t last forever. We each get only so many days to make our mark on the world.
So what IS the worst thing that can happen? For me, it would be living trapped inside a body that I couldn’t control, unable to communicate with those around me, unable to contribute to my family’s and society’s well-being. If I were a worst-case-scenario type of person, that thought would keep me up at night.
I’ve had patients in the hospital and the nursing home this week that have been trapped. They have been unable to communicate with us, their condition has been worsening with no signs of getting better, and their families have been struggling with deciding what to do.
I can’t imagine the pain of watching my Mom or Dad (my family’s beloved Nana or Pa) sick to the point of death and being asked to make life-or-death decisions on their behalf. I’m fortunate that my parents and I have discussed their wishes and they have created a Living Will to document their wishes should anybody have to make decisions for them someday.
As a doctor I know exactly what awful things can happen to a person when no one is there to put on the brakes, to say “NO! Mom wouldn’t want us to do that.”
There was an excellent article published in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago about how doctors die differently. We tend to forgo a lot of the aggressive treatment that our patients get, the same treatments that we tend to recommend for them. We tend not to want a lot of muss or fuss. We certainly don’t want to spend our last days in a hospital.
Why are we as a society so afraid of death? As obsessed as Hollywood is with violent death, you’d think we’d be accustomed to it. The truth is, though, that many of us are phobic when it comes to the thought of our own death or the deaths of those we love. We refuse to think about it, talk about it, or plan for it.
This is a big mistake.
Everyone and everything that lives, dies. This weekend is Easter, the memorial of the death of Jesus Christ. Even GOD died! The simple fact of death is not a tragedy. How can something that happens to every living thing on Earth be tragic? It’s part of living.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be afraid. It’s normal to be afraid to die. Even Jesus was afraid. He begged and pleaded to be spared. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to suffer pain. He didn’t want to be embarrassed and humiliated. He didn’t want his friends to leave him or to have them have to watch him suffer and die.
These same fears that Jesus experienced are the same ones that we experience when we are confronted with our own mortality. We don’t want to be in pain, suffer indignity, be alone, or watch our loved ones suffer with us. When I take care of someone who is terminally ill, I see the same large drama enacted at the first Easter two thousand years ago played out again small, with someone who is frail and fallible but no less a son or daughter of God.
It’s normal and healthy to be afraid of dying. It’s NOT healthy to refuse to think about it, talk about it, plan for it, and think about what you would or would not want done if you were sick and unable to talk to your doctors. Make sure your family knows what your wishes are, and fill out a Living Will if you can. Your doctors desperately want to respect your wishes, but you have to let us know what they are.