When someone is dying, what can we do?
Friday, May 08, 2020
In the throes of the uptick of the COVID-19 pandemic, my son sent me a text from a colleague of his lamenting that while thousands are and will be dying, the public is only hearing from scientists, politicians and economists. He implored experts grounded in the humanities speak directly about death before it arrives.
My kid said, “Mom, do it.” And proceeded to ask me a question that ripped my heart right open.
“What if I had been healthy last week and today I am dying. I’m still coherent; what would you say to me? It’s happening to people everywhere.”
Wiping away tears, I told him it’s not so much about what I would say, it’s about YOU, the person dying. In the best of circumstances, I would simply be present, ensure your comfort and help you consider your legacy.
Promising I would ponder it some more, we hung up. Wide awake at 3 a.m. that night, my thoughts turned to healthcare providers on the front lines of this disaster.
Worried about their own well-being, their families and households, they continue to provide care in workplaces reduced to battlefield conditions without the capacity or equipment to protect either themselves or their patients. Additionally, they must now be step-in surrogate family members for the multitudes dying alone.
How can attending to presence, comfort and legacy benefit us all?
Vivian Vu Ho, a Stanford medical student, wrote of learning to be with dying in her recent Scientific American “Medicine as Meditation” article. As she accompanied her physician-chaplain mentor on his rounds, he advised her,
Let us be simply be present — open, caring and curious. What matters for him [the patient] is what matters for us. Let us identify and respond, bringing all our life experience as well as training. May we be of service.
She came away from this experience realizing,
If medicine means to heal, I thought, then I could do this with my patients, chaplain title or not. With the right attention and intention, I could simply be present. The healing would happen just by authentically showing up.
Whatever relieves suffering and enhances a person’s quality of life — for however long it lasts — must be considered. Palliative care measures addressing the physical, psychological, spiritual and practical aspects encountered at the end-of-life are essential in this effort.
Though most of us dread even the thought, the actual act of dying is often not so bad. Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist, musician and writer, in his article in The Atlantic, comments on a study published in Psychological Science,
The words of the people merely imagining their imminent death were three times as negative as those of the people actually facing death—suggesting that, counterintuitively, death is scarier when it is theoretical and remote than when it is a concrete reality closing in.
In my experience, dying is frequently more frightening for the family than for the patient.
Frank Ostaseski, Buddhist teacher, lecturer and author, notes in his talk for “The Long Now,”
Reflection on death causes us to be more responsible—in our relationships, with ourselves, with the planet, with our future.
Brooks, in his aforementioned article, writes,
If I have properly developed the bonds of love among my family and friends, my own withering will be more than offset by blooming in others.
What lives? What dies? Who dies?
Questions for us to contemplate now if not before.
John Donne, poet, satirist, lawyer and priest, gives us his glimpse as he concludes his 1633 poem, “Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet X),”
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Poet, author and spiritual teacher, Stephen Levine offers us his insights in his 1989 book, “Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying,”
By communicating what we wish to live on after our death, our survivors gain a lifeline to us, a guidepost in their grief.
So, when someone is dying? Authentically show up. Get palliative care on board. Clarify what they wish to leave behind.
And, then, laugh with them, love them and release them.
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