In Tolstoy’s “The Three Deaths,” an old peasant driver is breathing his last breath in the kitchen of an inn. Next door, in a bedroom, the wife of a rich businessman is also dying. Whereas death is kept a secret from the rich woman for fear of frightening her, the old coachman understands fully what is happening. Nobody tries to deceive him. When a fellow worker asks him how he feels, he answers, “Death is here, that’s how it is.”
Is it any different today? Why do some people fight and defy the inevitable hour of death while others meet it head on with acceptance and calm? And furthermore, why do some of us choose to “protect” our loved ones from the inevitable and others choose to share the dying process openly?
In bearing witness to hundreds of dying patients, I notice that the vast majority are overcome with fear, uncertainty and denial. Patients don’t want to talk about “it” and families wish to keep “it” a secret. Sometimes they even request I remove my Hospice badge as if that will make “it” go away.
For the most part, individuals and families do not discuss the inevitable. This avoidance manifests as uncontrolled pain and restlessness for the person dying and confusion and despair for family members.
These people come from all walks of life, religious beliefs and socioeconomic backgrounds. The one thing they share in common – they are not prepared for death. They say, “Let’s talk about it another time.”
In a world of constant change and technological advances the traditional attitude toward death is a bulwark of inertia. The discussion of death is so obliterated from our culture, it is hard to imagine or understand it. We no longer speak of it, let alone plan for it.
The ancient attitude of death being a close and familiar friend is very different from our current view. In ancient times the hour of death was referred to as the “tame death.” The tame death is the oldest death there is. This does not mean that it was once wild and later domesticated. On the contrary, it means that death has become wild today when it used to be tame.
How will your death be? Are you talking about it? Share with us how you are planning and preparing for your final chapter.