Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A single person is missing for you

“A single person is missing for you and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.” Phillipe Aries, (French medievalist and historian), Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, published in 1975
As I age I probably think about death more than my younger friends. I am nearer the end of my life than the beginning and I know this. It is interesting how over the years our society has changed in our attitudes toward death. In North America, death like sex is a taboo subject. We do not talk about death in polite society, just as we don’t talk about sex in polite society. We couch our talk of death by talking about longevity. Today my friends and I talked about how a 70-year-old today is as healthy as a 56 year off in the 1950’s. We also talked of all those Canadians who were reaching 100. We focused on longevity in our conversation. 
We talked about average life span and wondered at the fact that as a society people are living longer today than fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, a Canadian who lived to 100 was a news item and the recipient of a letter from the Queen. Today Canada has about 6,000 centenarians and their number increases by roughly 1,000 a year. They still get the letter from the Queen, but someone has to let the Queen know, so a form letter can be sent.
Our conversation touched on death, as some friends had died, and we thought about the fact that when an older person dies, it is part of life, but when a child dies it is a tragedy. How times change. A century ago, the death of a child was an expected part of family life; today we are appalled and outraged when it happens. Fifty years ago, suicide was universally abhorred and treated as a crime, if not a sin. Today the right to die, which means suicide for a good reason, is legal in several countries and some American states; it is now a part of Canadian life.
My friends and I say we don’t fear death.  But I am not sure that is true for me. To quote Robert Frost, “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” and I hope that when my time comes, I will still be looking for the next promise to keep. Our time in history is worldly, which means that it’s relatively easy to consider dying simply as the last page in our life story. Ideally, we would like death to visit us while we sleep, or when we are in a relaxed mood.
But dying can be horrible. My mother took a year to die and I watched her fade away. I don’t fear death but I want it to stay away for a long time. I’m however terrified of painful and boring months (or even years) in palliative care and watching those who love me watch me fade. I wonder will joy and wonder disappear, as another version of my life endures. My mother lost her ability to talk. I wonder what I would do if I could not exchange words with anyone? What if I can’t read? What if I can’t write? What if I can’t watch my grandson grow, and laugh with him? Will I truly be alive? But even then, I would not hasten death to my door although there are some who would do this. As the old joke goes, I don't want to die screaming as my aunt did, I want to die in my sleep as my uncle did when he was driving down them down the highway.
However, in our society where we don’t talk about death, jokes about dying are seen as offensive by some, dying people are often abandoned psychologically by family, friends and doctors. Compassion, honesty and reassurance can help the seriously ill adapt to the approach of death. Research shows that psychological distress diminishes if the person who is dying is not alone and is able to express feelings and concerns to those who care, and who will listen. Our society takes great stock, in putting a person who is dying into care, Palliative Care or hospital care. This allows those who are friends of the person dying to prepare for Bereavement but does little to help the dying face their own death. Bereavement is now perceived as a normal psychological and physiological reaction to death. 
We grieve for those who die. Grief is characterised as somatic distress, guilt, hostility, change in patterns of conduct. In our society individuals, after the initial shock, are typically left to grieve alone.  There are five stages of grief that a person might go through, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
When a person dies, they are mourned by those who love them, but when they are dying there is no time them and their dying.  Our fear of death and the hope that we will live and enjoy our lives with interest and joy make it hard for some to be around those who are dying.
When a person dies, their passing becomes a community event, a celebration of life. Family members friends, and acquaintances band together with each other to share the moments of sorrow. This helps all, as we can share our emotions and be there for each other at a stressful time. A celebration of life is a good reason for being together and for an afternoon or a day we share our sorrow. 
However, in the days after the celebration of life, the closest to the deceased, still face the fact that for them, a single person is missing and their whole world appears to be empty. Take time with those who grieve, so that they know they don't need permission but have the right to say they miss their loved one aloud.

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