First of all, the answer to the question posed in the previous post’s poll is Shit. Feels a little anti-climactic now, no? Although I assure you, at the time when I first spoke it aloud, the word was volcanic. As the most forbidden term in my universe, lettin’ her rip like that tore a hole in the time/space continuum of my life that has never entirely closed again.
Such is the power of language.
And now, for a dramatic subject change (place hands firmly on each side and hold onto heads please) I ran across an interesting article after Googling the search term “do children know when they’re going to die.” The title of the piece is When A Child Is Dying and it’s written by a couple of M.D.’s working in children’s palliative care over at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
As one would expect with this topic, it’s a powerful, heartbreaking, and inspiring article, discussing both the keen awareness children tend to have of what’s really going on, as well as the higher stakes and corresponding desperation that so often comes to bear on adult decision making in these situations. Obviously, the two doctors who wrote the article are strong advocates for delivering better palliative care in cases where children are at end-stage, but evidently it can be an uphill battle as quality-of-life issues for the child vie with the powerful parental instinct to fight for life.
Read it if you dare. It highlights yet another area where 1) our collective commitment to denial about death can wreak some serious havoc if we don’t get out in front of it early, and 2) the huge and beautiful difference it can make for those we love most if we only screw up our courage and face it anyway.
One of the most helpful insights I gained while working with hospice had to do with a rather large, unexamined assumption I’d been laboring under most of my life; namely, that dying = something going wrong. (Not surprising considering that most of our medical language reinforces the perspective. Heart failure. Organ collapse. Failure to thrive. Losing the battle. Disease is the enemy. War on cancer, etc.)
However, after hanging around with the dying for a while and studying the dynamics first hand, a new and startling perspective presented itself and knocked my world off-tilt. I’m not entirely sure how it happened but as I watched one person after another…one circle of loved ones after another…migrate across the sweeping terrain of the dying season, the basic, cyclical nature of life began to show itself more clearly, and as it did the word “wrong” was gradually replaced with something else.
What was happening to these people wasn’t wrong so much as it was just time. Their time. Like someday it will be my time. And your time. And everyone’s time. (And every thing’s time for that matter. Nothing lasts forever in a physical world.) And as this new awareness grew on me I turned to the obvious, bewildering question: why in the world had I been believing, however subconsciously, that people shouldn’t die? Or that there was something wrong happening when they did? Where did that expectation come from anyway?
I quickly realized it’s because of how it feels–because of the huge losses involved and the devastating hole it tends to leave behind. Nine times out of ten, dying is a seriously hard physiological process to go through, and trying to recover after losing someone you love isn’t much better. The whole thing feels bad. Really bad. And because nobody wants to feel that way, it’s easy to mistake the badness of the feeling for something going wrong.
I admit, it sounds really strange to say that Yes, absolutely, dying is horrible and undignified and primal and full of suffering and loss and destruction…but hey! At least nothing’s going wrong.
It sounds insane and yet it’s true. Life is so weird sometimes.
But even accepting all that, it feels most wrong when a child dies. It just does. That magnitude of loss violates every screaming, primal, dangerous, protective, cornered instinct lacing our genes and honestly, I’m not sure if a rational perspective has any value at that point. Does it? I’m pretty sure I’d rip the throat out of anyone who tried to tell me nothing was going wrong if it was my child dying.
And yet…and yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not still true. Hmmm. Y’know, I think ultimately…if I was going through the loss of a child myself…I would rather be surrounded by people who accepted the inevitability of dying, were no longer afraid of it, and had learned how to navigate it gracefully. It seems like they’d be the ones most likely to offer the compassion, strength, and acceptance needed, rather than feeling conflicted, not knowing what to do, and turning their faces away in horror or outrage instead.
I guess that’s why stories like the one in When A Child Is Dying move me the way they do. I LOVE that these people are out there; the doctors and nurses and volunteers and social workers and chaplains and counselors and all the other staff working in palliative and hospice care, all trying to oh-so-gingerly raise our awareness in order to try and lift some of our burden. I’m grateful that they continue to wade willingly and skillfully into the darker waters of our lives every day.
They know that dying can be something better than most people currently believe.
copyright Dia Osborn 2012