Saturday, November 5, 2011

There will always be a top 10 cause of death: Death is part of life

I have been trying to write a post on the topic of why it’s important to accept death as part of life for some time. In the last three weeks, my very small town has had four deaths, which has propelled me to look at this and once again try to write about it. I dedicate this post to my friend Sophie Snarski, who was 95 and to Spencer Huntley, an 18 year old who died in a car accident just a few days ago.

When my oldest son was in the fifth grade, it became very clear that his teacher was in the process of dying. When I spoke to the principal about preparing the students for this eventuality, I was told to take it to the school board. Three parents, including myself, attended the next school board meeting to discuss this issue and were promptly beaten up by the school superintendent. “We should be talking about life, not death.” “The union protects her right not to have this discussed.” In short, we were told to go away and that the school was not to discuss it. Their version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We met with the board in late September and the teacher died on Thanksgiving Day.

While I was furious at the time of the school’s unwillingness to help their students with such a difficult lesson, it was also clear to me that we are continually being sent messages that death is not a subject for polite society. They were pretty much responding out of their own fears and societal norms.

True our life expectancy is much longer than it was 100 years ago, and for many, their first experience with a close death may not come until they are in their 50’s or older when their parents die. As each era has its own issues around death and dying, we have moved into a very unique situation with longer life expectancies, increased medical technology and a shift of death from acute conditions, where people died very rapidly, to chronic disease, where people live for many years with the condition that will result in their death.

It may change from decade to decade, or from country to country, but there will always be a top 10 causes of death. You can find the cure for cancer, but another condition will take its place at number two on the hit parade of mortality. Why? Because we’re programmed to die.

You don’t win friends and influence enemies by writing comments like this, but we’re also not helping people by the constant barrage of articles and materials on how we can avoid a particular condition if we exercise, eat right, take vitamins etc. etc. Researchers, doctors and the media love to talk about “preventable deaths.” A drug, lifestyle changes, or whatever else is couched in terms of preventing death by 10%, 20% etc. Contrary to the numbers, death is never prevented. It is only delayed.

It’s easy to dismiss this as some sort of a semantic issue, or maybe a George Carlin routine that never made it to HBO. However, the continual mentioning of this from drug commercials to the doctor trying to convince a patient to take medication, is creating a subtle messages that death just may be optional, and not just for those in California, as the joke goes. How this plays out can be problematic.

In keeping with the top 10 theme, below are my 10 reasons why we need to accept death as part of life.

• People with terminal, life threatening or chronic conditions are shunned because they represent what we most fear. Friends and families disconnect from them to spare themselves the reality of their own future.

• It seems that the “politically correct” thing to do, when learning of a friend or family member’s terminal illness, is to kept it to your self. We are really into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. People do not know how to respond when someone is very ill, let alone when they die, which results in the person and those closest to them, not getting the support that would be so helpful. The dying have much to teach the living, but we have to be present to learn from them.

• Frequently, families and friends, regardless of the age of the person affected, will say that the individual’s dying could have been prevented if he or she “just took care of themselves,” didn’t smoke, do drugs, have sex, gone to the doctor sooner and so forth and so on. The person that is dying will express concern that they are letting down family and friends by being ill, let alone dying. They too will voice about this being their fault and/or “if I only hadn’t…” Some are embarrassed that their bodies are failing them; they interpret it as a “personal failure.” It doesn’t help people to be dying thinking they are failures.

• Because of our fear of death, the charlatans prey on those fears and rob people of money, valuable resources and time.

• Regimenting ones life by eating certain foods, exercising, taking lots of vitamins etc. in order to live indefinitely, can take up so much time, the joy of living is lost in the process.

• The regimental approach, as noted above, can also eliminate the opportunities to develop a spirituality that can nourish and enrich one’s life, regardless of its length.

• Lack of discussion results in end of life decisions being made for you, which may not be to your liking.

• Massive amounts of resources are being used to extend life, even if it’s just for a day or two. Just how long can the planet sustain such a practice?

• By not acknowledging our impermanence, we neglect to enjoy the moment as we fill our time with striving for “bigger and better.”

• By accepting that we all die, and that we are on temporary loan to one another, maybe we can become a more honest and compassionate society, where we make the time we have together a valued experience.

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