Let’s talk about death

I’ve seen a lot of dead bodies this year.

Some of them were elderly and should have known their days were limited. Others were fairly young and assumed they had years to go before even coming close to death. But both young and old were unprepared for what happened.

We all know that none of us gets out of this life alive. We all die. And yet, most of us are caught by surprise when it happens to those we know and love, even when it’s someone if their 80s or 90s. How is it that we can be so unprepared for something that is universal, that none of us can avoid?

We just don’t talk about death enough.

We read and hear about death on a regular basis, thanks to our internet-based connection to news organizations and social media. At least once a week, a celebrity of some sort dies. And regularly, there are tragic events around the world that make headline news. But for some reason, these deaths rarely lead to substantial conversations about our own deaths and the deaths of our loved ones.

If we’re to not only live well, but die well, we need to have real, explicit conversations about our own deaths.

Seeing all of these people dying over the past few months and realizing how unprepared I’ve been has made me do a few things.

First of all, I filled out an advanced directive. (Click here to download a PDF for an advanced directive form for the state you live in.)

An advanced directive does a couple of things. It establishes someone who can make decisions for you if you’re unable to make decisions for yourself, especially in areas that aren’t covered by the rest of your advanced directive. Now, there is a basic flow of decision makers if you don’t establish one yourself. It goes in this order: spouse, children, parents, siblings, doctor. The problem is that if you don’t make decisions yourself, you not only put stress on your family to have to make decisions for you, but you can possibly create conflict as certain family members ask for more drastic measures while others ask for less. Filling out an advanced directive removes the stress of guessing what you’d want, since you’ve already spelled it out. It also prevents extended suffering for yourself and costs to your family and the health care system by not requiring care beyond what you’d want. If you haven’t filled one out, get busy!

Second of all, I started talking about what a good death would look like for me. And conversely, what I’d like to avoid in my dying.

For instance, I would prefer lucidity over pain management. If the choice is between being awake and able think and talk clearly with those I love and being free from pain, I would rather be in pain and lucid than be pain-free and out of it.

One of my great fears is not being able to breathe. So, that’s something I would want to be dealt with medically. Thankfully, a simple, small use of morphine is enough to deal with that. So, sign me up for that if it’s needed!

If it comes to it, I’m willing to exercise, eat a somewhat limited diet, and go through a range of treatments to fight death-threatening illnesses. These aren’t so much of a stretch for me. But I’m not willing to go through harrowing treatments which might only gain me a few months. And I want doctors to be brutally honest about that.

Recently, I was in a family meeting with a doctor who so longed to be compassionate to the family that she didn’t make it clear that extraordinary measures would only extend the patient’s life by approximately three weeks and those few weeks would be in an unconscious state in a facility several hours away. The family was considering it until I asked a clarifying question and they immediately opted against it.

I definitely don’t want to be a burden on my wife and children. I would rather die younger and enable my wife to grieve now and remarry than be a weight around her neck.

Now, I have seen my Dad become a gentler man because of caring for my Mom since her stroke 27 years ago. And I’ve seen my Mom become the woman of prayer she always talked about being during her fast-forward younger days now that she’s slowed down enough to actually pray. So, I don’t reject a handicapped life. Certain limitations can open up all kinds of other possibilities. And I am very willing to suffer and/or be limited so that God can show the greatness of his grace through my weaknesses, whatever they are.

What I don’t want to do is prolong a life that has been lived well into a twilight that is lived poorly because of a fear of death. That would be a burden to myself as well as to others.

Very few people die at home anymore. Most die in hospitals or care centers. I’d rather be an exception to this disturbing trend. There are times to call 911 and get help. And there are times to stop, take a breath, push away fear, look one another in the eye, and face death together.

Death is a sacred moment of passing from one life to another. If at all possible, I don’t want mine crowded by drugs or connected to tubes.

Drugs and tubes have their time and place and I honor those in the medical profession who do such great work saving people’s lives. I’m privileged to work alongside them. But there are times when their work ends and times when I don’t even want it to begin for me.

I hope my thoughts about death help trigger your own thoughts about death. And even more than that, I hope they trigger conversations about death with others. In fact, I want to end by pointing you to the work of the Conversation Project, which is all about engaging in these conversations about death before it’s too late.

I don’t want to stumble through life. And I don’t want to stumble when it comes to my dying. I want to die just as I live, with eyes wide and a heart full of love. I’ve watched others do it well and I’ve thought to myself, “Now that’s how I want to die.”