Death is not the enemy, but it’s pretty scary anyway.
I had a rough weekend on “house call,” being called regarding concerns for inpatients of general and sub-specialty surgeons, psychiatrists, internists,GPs , and other docs. My pager seemed to go off incessantly and I spent my bleary-eyed time trying to keep people healthy and comfortable. Though I don’t regard death as the enemy, being the overnight or weekend ‘band-aid solution,’ it sometimes feels like my job on-call is to not let anyone die and to try to make those dying a bit more comfortable.
Seeing a few patients who were receiving comfort care only, and one in particular who has been able to come to terms with his prognosis via a heavy dose of faith, I’ve been reflecting on my own spirituality and views of death and dying.
I’m the sort of person who has faith in humanity, in our ability to do both good and bad, to learn and change, and to surprise ourselves and each other. I don’t have much personal spirituality, but I acknowledge its importance. Faith is central to the lives – and deaths – of many people.
Hope in an afterlife, faith that a god will take care of those who remain, and trust that everything happens for a reason can be comforting. Death is a terminal event (in some capacity, at least), but it is uncomfortable to think that. I believe that when I die, my body with rot (or burn), but still I want to live on in the memories of those I’ve touched. I want for them to say ‘I’m glad I knew her.’ I’ve still got a lot of work to do before I’m that person, but I’ve met many whose example I strive to live up to.
In the case of my Grandmother’s death, her memorial was a celebration of all the wonderful things she’d left us. We learned from her how to be patient and caring, how to extend a helping hand. She taught us through her actions that judging people isn’t important and that open minds & small adventures can bring us great pleasure. I learned how to make fantastic oatmeal cookies and how to care for orchids. She taught me a few words of Finn and that simple letter writing is good for the soul. I realized that we never stop learning on the day I taught my grandmother how to pump gas. She was in her 70s. In all these small ways, she will be forever remembered and will influence the shape of my life and many like me.
That sort of remembrance is enough. Actually, it isn’t. Something in me aches to think “that’s it.”I can’t fathom that little light inside of me simply shutting off. It is difficult to accept that my consciousness will be lost permanently. I’m not sure if I’d want to know much in advance before I was dying; I’d certainly like to make sure my family was okay, finances were settled (so no one got stuck dealing with this), and any advance directive/living will was in place in case of rough times. For those who are in a terminal state, it seems that some promise of another existence would make it a lot easier to let go of the flesh in which we are encased in life. My grandma certainly had faith. She had time to make sure everything on Earth was taken care of and she knew she would be taken care of too.
When I’m dying, I bet I’ll be too afraid to have lots of time to face what is – or isn’t – coming. Heaven, reincarnation, and other life-after-death ideas do much to quell that unsettled feeling, but I can’t make myself accept them. Will I ever be settled? Will anyone? The least we can do is make sure our time on Earth is the best it can be.