Susanne Duijjvestein inspired this post with this quote: “Being dead is no excuse.” Susanne is a young, progressive undertaker/funeral director in Amsterdam. She ditched a successful career in banking to pursue her interest in our Western culture practices surrounding death, particularly how we deal with the end of life as we know it. Another of Susanne’s quotes is “What is your story? What will you eventually leave behind?” I believe now is the time to decide what you want your story to be and what legacy you want to leave behind. Consider what is essential, the rest can be left to others.
For the past several years I have reminded people in various settings that each one of us has an appointment with death someday. Without regard for how, when or where that will happen, it is guaranteed. Most people would prefer not to think about it nor talk about it openly. Whether that is avoidance or denial or simply a postponement of the inevitable doesn’t matter. What you can’t or won’t talk about will come up and bite you in your backside one day as a reality. For many people death may come at the end of a gradual decline and for others death may come rather unexpectedly. For many it is a welcome and peaceful end and for others, not so much.
So, what are we to do with this certainty, this knowledge of the inevitable? For one thing, we can plan for it. My tag line for the past 15 years has been and continues to be, “Change is inevitable. Plan carefully.” In my work with people who want to make other kinds of life transitions, it is very different work from planning the end of life matters. Those other work and life transitions are often filled with excitement and enthusiasm. Planning for the transition at the end of life could be different from our current practices, as suggested by Susanne Duijvestein, and making that shift will require some serious thought and conversations.
As of August 1,2019, physician-assisted dying and death was legal in nine US states and the District of Columbia. It is an option given to individuals by law in the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. It is an option given to individuals in Montana and California via court decision. Because Western medicine and medical practice has been and continues to be saving and prolonging life, it may seem logical that the medical profession have a compassionate hand in ending life as well. Atul Gawande wrote an exceptionally helpful book on this topic, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. (Henry Holt & Co. 2014)
The question we all need to answer is this. What can our quality of life be toward the end of our lives given the circumstances in which we find ourselves at any given moment? Once we make it past 70 or 80 in reasonably good health, our options are greater than they will be later, that is assured. Most of us know the important roles of diet, exercise, relationships, and activities of various kinds. When we connect what we know to what we do, we improve our chances for a better quality of life than we might have had otherwise.
Accepting our mortality, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, frees us from the fear of dying in spite of Woody Allen’s famous quote, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” We will, each one of us, be there, and preferably with loved ones close by to help us make that final transition. Death is part of our human nature and deserves to be as acknowledged as our birth, with an appropriate celebration.