Think of a very uncomfortable subject that you don’t like to talk or even think about.
By any chance was that subject death?
If it is, you’re not alone. Given the option of getting a root canal or talking about our eventual demise, many would leap into the dental chair. Why? What’s so yucky about death? It’s an inevitable outcome of our life experience here on earth. To my knowledge, no one has successfully hidden from the grim reaper when it came knocking at their door. So what’s the big deal? I’ll tell you what’s the big deal.
Most of us are afraid of how death will happen to us: a car accident? a heart attack while shoveling snow or doing yardwork? the excruciating journey of terminal cancer? I totally understand the fear factor associated with these very normal concerns.
Perhaps some of us are concerned about the afterlife: does heaven exist? or worse yet, does hell exist? will I still be able to sip a fine cabernet sauvignon after I leave this earth? will I finally get the chance to perfect my golf swing? or will I be surrounded by a bunch of burning hot flames, licking at my feet?
My response to all of those questions is: there’s no way of knowing, so they’re not worth fretting over.
Instead, we all need to plan for a beautiful death, the subject of the New York Times article, Seeking a beautiful death by Jane E. Brody. Ms. Brody highlights the importance of having The Conversation about what we want – or don’t want – when confronted with a terminal illness. I think many of us assume we have lots of time before we need to have that type of discussion with loved ones; we’re counting on not dying until we’re well into our golden years or beyond. I have lost friends who never made it past their 70s; a few died in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Because we never know when that time will come, the time to have The Conversation is now.
The Conversation a Revolutionary Plan for end-of-life Care, a book written by Angelo Volandes, MD, a physician at Harvard Medical School and staff physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, should be considered required reading for everyone who thinks they may die some day … that’s ALL of us. This book provides a primer for how to go about having this very important discussion with family members and friends. Dr. Volandes even developed a list of topical prompts we can use, and he developed an instructional video on the subject, a link to which is provided in the New York Times article referenced above.
If you’re not conscious when you’re in the throes of a terminal illness – or if your cognitive abilities are compromised because of illness – will the doctors know whether or not you want absolutely everything done to prolong your life as long as possible, or whether you want palliative/comfort measures to make what remaining time you have to be quality time? Will your family know? If ever there was a time to be a control freak – and planning for your death certainly qualifies – it’s right now.
What if your loved one demands the full spectrum of life-prolonging care comprised of breathing and feeding tubes, dialysis, repeated rib crushing CPR, chemotherapy, and the like, when what you really want is to be made comfortable, especially since none of those procedures could save your life? Additionally, if your wishes have not been made clear and you are in the hospital with a terminal illness and have a sudden life-threatening event, the hospital staff must employ all medical procedures available to keep you alive. If they don’t know your wishes ahead of time, their actions may be 100% contrary to your actual wishes.
Or the alternative: you’ve always thought you’d like every procedure possible employed to prolong your life – you want to milk every second you can from the life you’ve been given – but your loved one refuses all of those measures, thinking she knows best what you would want in your final minutes or hours.
If you’re not able to make those types of decisions towards the end of your life, wouldn’t you like your detailed wishes to have been previously declared – verbally or written – so that nothing is left to chance?
I don’t know about you, but that’s something I could live with, er, die with!
For more information on this subject, please see my article, Ending life on our own terms.