Anyone who’s been following this blog for a while knows that I don’t believe dying and death need to look as terrifying, crippling, or hopeless as they’re so often portrayed in American media and culture. (Dying and death are two completely different things by the way. I wrote about the difference in the post Dying Is Still Alive a while back but it’s important enough to mention again here.) In the U.S. we live in a profoundly death-averse culture that has not only stripped out most of the beauty, grace, and strength involved, it’s taken the innate sadness, loss, and suffering of the dying process and blown them up a hundred times bigger than they already were.
Which is a common function of denial.
I’m deeply concerned by the pervasiveness of this bloated kind of fear. Partly because of the driving role it plays in the unsustainable costs of our health care system, but more because of how much harm it does to people in their everyday lives, a harm that a lot of people don’t even realize is there. Living with the kind of chronic, low grade terror that comes when one doubts they’ll be able to handle dying when it arrives, is very hard on a person’s basic sense of security in life. It’s like trying to enjoy a journey down a magnificent river when you know there’s a Class 5 rapids up ahead somewhere (nobody knows the exact location) that’s gonna beat the shit out of you when you get there because you lack the knowledge and skills to navigate it successfully. Under those circumstances who can relax for very long?
Part of what I’ve wanted to do with this blog is to try and counter some of the negative effects of this pervasive, cultural aversion we have. To try and rebuild…by talking about the particulars of dying in a normal, unafraid kind of way…some awareness of, and confidence in, the native abilities we were all born with that help when the time comes. It’s never been my intention to try and eliminate the fear of dying completely because, frankly, I don’t think that’s wise. Some fear of dying is actually helpful and necessary if we plan to survive for very long as a species.
But I do want to try and ease some of the excess, buried terror I so often glimpse in the back of people’s eyes, to see if I can’t offer something that might help shrink that part of it back down to a size they can live with. Happily. Safely. Confidently. With an abundance of hope and optimism about their own dying time, whenever it comes.
Pipe dream? I honestly don’t think so. There are some practical steps people can take to ease their fear, if they ever want to. What I’d like to do with the next few posts is talk about five of the things that have a big influence on whether a person is more likely to accept or fear dying, and then identify which ones we have some control over, and what we can do to try and change them if need be.
Five Major Influences That Determine Whether We Accept or Fear Dying and Death:
Influence Number One: The quality of our first exposures to dying and death. This includes things like, a) How old we were when we first encountered it, b) How old the person dying was when we lost them, c) How close our relationship was with the person dying, and d) The nature and graphic details of the dying and/or deaths that we witnessed.
Influence Number Two: The attitude towards dying and death of those who taught us about it. If they were afraid of it, we probably learned to fear it, too. If they couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t know how to talk about it, we probably learned that it’s a taboo topic to be feared and avoided. If they were unfamiliar with, but curious about it, we were more likely to feel safe thinking about it and exploring it ourselves. And if they were familiar and at peace with it, then chances are higher that we’d become familiar with it and learn to accept it, too.
Influence Number Three: How much and what kind of knowledge we have about the details of dying and death. The less we know about it, the greater the likelihood of fear due to the unknown factor. However, partial knowledge can be even worse. If we know a lot about the difficult aspects of dying but nothing about the beautiful side, there’s likely to be some additional irrational terror on top of our fear of the remaining unknown. But if we know both the difficult and beautiful details about it, we’re far more likely to harness a courageous view of dying, as well as make a plan for navigating our own when the time comes.
Influence Number Four: Our level of practical familiarity with dying and death. I’m talking about hands-on, in-the-room experience here as versus just philosophical knowledge. An increased familiarity with, and tolerance of, the nitty gritty, physical details involved is usually helpful where easing fear is concerned. But only as long as the quality of the dying and death being experienced is good. When the dying process swings the other way and is out of control, hopeless, violent, or otherwise horrible, then it’s more likely to just confirm our worst fears. A bad death is not a great situation for novices, but of course sometimes that just can’t be helped. See Number One above.
Influence Number Five: What meaning we assign to dying and death. This influence is perhaps the greatest of them all. The meanings we weave are completely unique to each person and will usually be a product of the accumulated experience from the previous four influences. It’s important to remember that this one is constantly evolving, and that it can (and probably will) swing back and forth between a negative and positive view over time. It’s very heavily influenced by the quality of the deaths it’s exposed to (including movie deaths, news stories of deaths, etc.) The greater the frequency of good deaths that we hear about, witness, or participate in, the more positive our meaning about death is likely to become. And vice versa. I believe a person’s aggregate exposure to good deaths vs. bad deaths is the strongest indicator of whether a person will view dying and death in a positive or negative light. I believe this exposure is an even stronger indicator than a person’s religious or philosophical beliefs.
(This is why I feel that striving for a good death might almost be considered a social responsibility. Not only because it’s absolutely in our own best interests to die a good death, but because the legacy of a bad death is so powerful and lingering that it can sometimes harm, cripple, or even destroy the individual lives left in its wake. I’ve seen the influence of both good and bad deaths first hand and I assure you, the difference for survivors is profound.)
In the next post I’d like to discuss how our early exposure to dying and death plays a big role in shaping our view (for better or worse), but how a subsequent brush can shift or change it again. I’ll share a few stories that I think might be interesting.
copyright Dia Osborn 2012