Sunday, August 9, 2009

Languaging Death and Dying

I read the following over at The Dalai Grandma, a new find for me in the blogosphere. I've included her blog in my list, and encourage you to check it out.

"Scanning the obituaries in the local paper today, I soon came across the person who had died "after a long, courageous battle with leukemia." I wondered just what that meant. I decided it meant she didn't make other people uncomfortably aware of her pain and fear. She didn't cry much in front of other people, she didn't whine, she smiled, she put on a pink turban and went to parties and tried every kind of chemo, proven or not. Effort. I mean, what the hell does it mean to "courageously" "battle" the inevitable? Can you battle in a cowardly way? Or can you just battle, without any adjectives? Or can you not battle at all, and can that be a dignified choice?"

It's so very interesting how people choose to describe death. I think it says a lot about a person's attitude towards death, as well as reflecting cultural approaches to death as well. Take the phrase "passing away." The words soften our experience of the news, even if only a little bit. There is an ease in saying the words themselves - passing away - a flow that allows one to speak of something difficult to handle.

And yet, don't these same words work to conceal the experience in certain ways? When we say so and so passed away, doesn't it conjure up an image in our minds of what happened which may or may not correspond with what actually happened?

Words around death and dying impact how we react to it. Plain and simple. Saying so and so died feels different from saying so and so passed away. Saying so and so was murdered feels very different for both the other two.

Let's go further, and think about the process before. The Dalai Grandma (gotta love that name!) pointed out some issues with the words "courageous battle."

Later in her post, she writes, "I feel very burdened by this idea that admirable people are those who fight, and who do so "courageously." It's hard enough to do what seems to be the right thing, go to the doctors, watch the diet, undergo the tests and the misery of hospitalizations, do the exercises, wear the event monitor and the orthotics and the tennis shoes. Do I have to do it with a cheerful attitude?"

Like her, I wonder what really is "courageous," and think it's probably different for each of us. I also believe there is a hell of a lot of clinging on to life here in the U.S., to the point where we will spend billions of dollars annually to prolong people's lives in the last days, when death is already a forgone conclusion.

Think about it. Reflect on how different it is to say "I am dying" and act accordingly, when dying is the truth of the situation? Put this way along side the "courageously battling" approach at the end of life, this fighting against death until the last second.

Is this really the way you want to go? To battle to the last second?

I think it's a little to easy to bring up dharma language about life and death being seamless and all that. Sure, intellectually many of us in the Buddhist world know better. But drop the heady crap! Drop it! And really reflect on where you are at with death and dying right now.

It still scares me some. I don't feel practiced enough, or ready. Yes, I'm a young pup in many respects, but who knows what will happen. I do what I can to be healthy, but a long life isn't guarenteed, no matter what I, or you, do.

How many people have enough ease around death to truly embrace a dying person exactly as they are? To me, this is an aspiration - to drop all efforts at trying to fix, to smooth out the rough edges, and to just be right there in the moment.

If we truly desire to reduce the suffering in this world, it's high time we look at death and dying more closely. We owe it not only to those we love who will eventually die, but also to ourselves.


Robyn said...

Yes, yes yes! I think it should be required that everyone go and volunteer at a hospice for a time. Death is right there, for better or worse, and you have no where to hide. I highly recommend it if you can spare the time.

In my own brief experience with a possible dire diagnosis (fortunately did not really pan out), one of my first thoughts was "oh jeez, I am NOT going to be one of those people that others speak about - oh she was so brave." I was scared shitless!

A good death is very important to me, although I am not sure exactly what that means, which is why I am a student of Zen...

ZenDotStudio said...

Nice post by you & the Dalai Grandma! I was watching a little clip with Leonard Cohen and Canadian interviewer Jian Gomeshi (sp?) and he asked Cohen if you was afraid of dying. Cohen's answer was that he wasn't afraid of death but the prelude. It seemed a good, honest answer to me because when you stop and stare your own death in the face my experience has been just that. It is the potential suffering that comes with the process of dying that instills fear. How many medical indignities will be part of that? How will I manage all that comes to me?

And yet when you get into the middle of a serious, potentially life threatening illness you find that you take it one step at a time and that somehow it's manageable, that it can transform into something that is sometimes beautiful and touching and filled with community. It is also sad and frightening. To experience all of that in its fullness is the courageous part in my mind.

We like to sanitize so many things with euphemisms in our culture. "Collateral damage" means you killed a bunch of innocent bystanders with your bombs. I feel like saying someone "passed away" is just another way of avoiding the issue of death. What's wrong with saying "my father died." We don't have a problem talking about birth. We never say someone passed into this world. Why do we need to say they passed away? Many layers and aspects to this good inquiry.