This post is a continuation (well done, me!) from the last one: Important Writing Skill: Follow Through.
Random Hot Tip About Dying #2 went something like this:
“Accepting dying might not always make it easier when it comes, but being horrified is guaranteed to make it worse.”
Once upon a time on a flight from Denver to St. Louis I found myself seated next to a late-boarding, extremely chatty, middle-aged woman from New Jersey who kept up a non-stop flow of conversation with everyone who would listen from the minute she first came through the front door till I got off the plane in Missouri. I’m fairly friendly when I travel but this woman put me to shame.
I was on the aisle, she was in the middle, and a handsome thirty-ish man sat next to the window on her left. Predictably, she engaged Mr. Handsome first and they conversed for close to half an hour before she finally turned towards me, smiled brightly, and commenced her interrogation. We got through where are you coming from? and where are you headed? in less than a minute after which she asked me the question I’d been waiting for: So what do you do?
I smiled and said, “I work with hospice,” then sat back to watch the show.
She didn’t fail me. In fact, she was magnificent, it was hands down the best display I’ve ever seen. She froze at the word hospice and went pale, eyes widening and mouth forming itself into a mute little “o” as if she’d just discovered she was sitting next to the grim reaper. She stared into my eyes for probably ten full seconds (which is a very long time to just sit there and stare at a complete stranger without saying a word…go ahead, time it) and then turned her back on me and engaged Mr. Handsome in forced conversation for the rest of the flight.
I chuckled and went back to my book.
Her reaction was extreme but hardly unusual. I’d guess somewhere around ninety to ninety-five percent of the people I told over the years fell somewhere along this squirming-to-bugeyed spectrum when they learned that I worked with the dying. Only a handful were open and willing to talk about it, which tells you something about us.
Needless to say I never chuckled when I saw this kind of horror in a person who was currently dying, or someone who loved that person who was dying, mainly because it’s so. not. funny. in real-time. It’s tragic. In the person who’s dying it can produce varying degrees of self-loathing and bitterness, while in a loved one it either keeps them away or, if they do force themselves to swing by and stand uneasily near the bedside for a half hour, it can make the dying person feel so bad that they wish they hadn’t come.
Look. Dying is challenging, even for those who are ready for it. I’d be lying to you if I told you otherwise. Physiologically, it’s full of graphic processes that are uncomfortable, undignified, and unlovely. Emotionally, saying good-bye to everything you’ve ever known and loved is a bitch. And existentially, everyone has to face that this is it and decide what kind of afterwards they’re looking at and deal with that if necessary.
It’s a lot of work, but just like any other kind of work, how you approach it makes a world of difference. During my years in hospice I saw a lot of people die well, with dignity and humor and sorrow and regret and suffering and love and acceptance all bundled together in a final package of overall grace. Without exception, these were people who eventually accepted that they were dying and found something in their life to care about to the last anyway.
And BTW, they didn’t do it alone. They did it with a lot of help and support from those who loved them, as well as the hospice team who was working like crazy to make it happen for them.
I should mention here that everyone is a little bit horror/little bit grace when it comes to dying. That’s part of being human, to encompass the full range, and if you find you’re currently coming down hard on the horror side of things, don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal for the shift to acceptance to be gradual and erratic and to some degree it keeps happening all the way to the end.
But it does take effort which is why accepting dying is a good goal to set your sights on now, wherever you are in your life. It can not only improve the quality of your dying time when it comes, it can also improve the quality of your life long before then. Not to mention that it also improves the quality of life for everyone else you know who’ll be dying before you do. Dying is a social activity that affects the entire community so ideally we’d all be pitching in to support and include whoever’s turn it is more than we do.
Trust me, whether you’re dying yourself or visiting someone else so engaged, compassion and acceptance will do far more good than revulsion and dread ever could. Dying is hard enough work without piling that on top of it, too.
copyright Dia Osborn 2013