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Death and the Process of Dying

As I get older and closer to the end of my life, I watch friends around me entering the same phase. I am incredibly grateful for the years I have lived and don't take this gift lightly.

I am getting more closely acquainted with the process of dying as I watch some around me in the throes of that process. While observing, I am noticing how little we speak about death and how uncomfortable we are with the topic in general. It seems to fall under the controversially taboo category with politics, sex, religion, and income. Perhaps it's time we start talking about these subjects. Honesty, transparency, and ownership will need to guide these conversations if they are to have any effect. One way to start talking about death is acknowledgement. "No one is getting out of here alive, so . . .” I begin to think about the hard facts of these difficult subjects and then connect them to my more personal feelings and goals.

holding hands

Recently I have watched three different people in the process of exiting our planet due to vastly different conditions and with completely contrasting attitudes. Two have passed. Watching these people go (and in the process of going) has helped me to understand a variety of choices we can be fortunate to face when nearing our end.

As her children said, Jean was "glad to have lived a good life and was not afraid to leave it." A member of the Hemlock Society of Washington and a supporter of Compassionate and Choices of Washington, Jean was crystal clear about directing the point in which she was finished living. In her mid-eighties, she had a plan for dying and executed it with thought and intention.

Glenn was in his early sixties and had hoped for many more years on Earth. Because of his long and arduous path toward death, he shared all the words possible with his loved ones. On one of my last visits, I asked Glenn if there was anything more he needed to share. He said, "I love you, man," which as I write this still makes me smile. I got the gift of telling him how much he meant to me in my life as well. When his son called to tell me of his passing, he said that he died in peace surrounded by love.

The third person is my neighbor, who is dying more visibly than the rest of us but has not yet passed. He was diagnosed with ALS four long years ago. I believe his speech stopped two years ago, as did his eating, ability to move, and self-care. With such a brutal and unforgiving disease, he continues to linger on. The word disease seems so fitting for this “dis-ease.”

As I age, I plan to have more intentional conversations about death and dying with my loved ones. During one of my recent conversations, a book was recommended to me. I look forward to reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and others to understand more pathways taken at the nearing ends of our lives.

Are you ready and willing to talk with others about death and dying? Do you have any plans if your life lingers on with disease? Do you live life as if this might be your last day on earth?

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