The most common myth about dying is that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen to us. We are all aware that everyone dies. Nobody is immune from life. As such, while we should not spend every waking moment waiting for death to arrive, we need to set aside time to consider how we want the end to look like, partially for our own spiritual practices, as well as the for the practical needs of one’s family. The person dying often has less worries and fears than the surviving, especially the primary care providers, who feel that all their efforts are in vein. The price of not talking about death describes the challenges that occur when people don’t talk about death.
In the movies, people often die in some quick, dramatic way. There are bullets, train wrecks, serial killers, monsters, or, at least, exotic illnesses. If they die quietly, they almost always leave with a memorably pithy comment.
Many of us don’t know much more than that about death until it comes to live in our own house. Friends may lose family members, but they rarely talk about the uglier aspects of dying. We all conspire to protect one another – and perhaps our loved ones’ dignity – from the smells, sounds, and suffering that accompany the slow shutdown of vital organs. Why think about that until you absolutely have to?
But our reluctance to talk about the mechanics of decline and caregiving comes at a price. Ignorance can make first-time caregiving more frightening and disturbing.
“It would be a lot easier if we didn’t hide death, if we didn’t medicalize death, if there was a general acceptance and recognition of mortality,” said Lydia Dugdale, a Yale University doctor who wrote an essay on the “art of dying well” for The Hastings Center Report in December. She says bioethicists should “create a framework for teaching an aging population to prepare for death and to support one another through the dying process.” (I recommend reading her article for she presents a very eye opening look at the history of death, using the bubonic plague as a foil for the difference between our times and the rest of human history)
The rest of the article provides an overview of the dying process. While everyone dies differently, there tend to be common signs. If we become familiar with those signs before becoming caregivers, we will be better prepared for the randomness and feelings of lack of control that inevitably occur when someone we know is dying.