There is no quicker way to end a pleasant conversation than by bringing up the topic of death. Beyond the saying of requisite condolences, we don’t really know how else to respond. Death touches us all eventually, but interestingly enough, we have never mastered the art of talking about it, despite the fact that we all will eventually die.
There are many terms to describe the process of dying; passed away, late, no longer with us, moved on. For some reason we find all of these terms more palatable than the simple word, dead. We try to sweeten it up, either for the benefit of the sorrowing ones, or to mask our own discomfort.
Some of us are lucky enough to go peacefully and quickly. We are alive one moment and gone the next. No lingering, no suffering, just blessed peace. Is it part of our genetic makeup? Are some of us destined to die with our dignity still intact? Science might not have the answers, but maybe it will someday.
It is interesting how far we will go to avoid the topic, yet our media is inundated with gory images of death. Every day the news is filled with stories about children caught in the crossfire, families killed in horrendous car accidents, fatal home invasions and violence deliberately enacted on the targets of unsuppressed rage. We watch and listen, but seldom discuss.
Movies and television programs thrive on the study of death, almost to the glorification of the act of killing. Almost every night, on every channel, there are police scenarios, crime scene investigations, mentalists who look into eyes and can determine guilt, and gang-style organizations that wreak havoc in our cities. Video games allow players to reenact, over and over, the countless deaths of perceived enemies, not just in the act of war, but of those who simply have the audacity to cross our paths.
Has all this made us immune to the reality of death? The permanence of death? There is that possibility. How often do we cry over the news? Probably not all the often. We might shake our heads and bemoan the loss of life, but do we truly mourn, deep inside, for those unknowns who have left us. Until death becomes personal.
An elderly woman, full of life, yet living in a residential care facility, dresses every morning as if she is going out for the evening. Neatly pressed dress, hat, white gloves. She goes to the art room to participate in a class. Sits down. Keels over. Just like that. Quiet, peaceful, with dignity intact.
A man in a skilled nursing facility who can still walk and talk, gets up one morning and slips. As he falls, his head strikes the metal bed. He dies immediately, with his family wondering what happened even as they are spared watching his mind vanish and his body crumble.
There are those who linger, caught in a never-never-land of oblivion. Their hearts continue to beat, lungs to breathe, organs to process, yet there is no one home. They are force-fed in order to keep them alive. But is it living? Does quality of life count for anything?
As we age, death becomes more of a reality. We develop conditions. We are hospitalized. We have surgery. We learn again to walk, talk, eat, be human. But we know and understand that we are dying incrementally every day. No matter how much we exercise, eat the right foods, abstain from the vices of drugs and alcohol, our bodies fail us by degrees. We hope that our end is not near, that by taking care of ourselves that we are postponing what is to come.
But what happens when we are touched by death? Do we cry? Wail? Pound our heads against the wall? Climb into bed and bury ourselves in our covers? Or do we realize that others need us to be strong, to support them as they accompany us through the grieving process?
We walk through this life with others standing by our sides. Holding our hands. As good citizens we must be there to listen, to hold, to comfort, even when we are hurting inside. After all, isn’t that what we hope for when our time comes?