As we settle into autumn and head into winter, I've generally found myself drawn into reflection about dying. How could I not when the seasons are revealing this process all around me? This beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer is one of my seasonal favorites; she sings how "leaves don't drop, they just let go, and make a space for seeds to grow":
When I lived in Maine, the year after my dad died I volunteered for a short while with the local hospice. I would go out to sit with an old woman who was bedridden and dying at home, providing a few hours of respite for her son and granddaughter. They all lived on a working farm, and the dying woman's bed faced a window where she could watch the birds and flowers, and even glimpse someone walking to or from the barn. Her surroundings were simple, as were her needs. My purpose was also simple: to sit with her while her family stepped away for some time to themselves. Not everyone has this kind of opportunity to meet death from their own home, but it would be nice if they could. But in order to even have a chance to do so, the conversation must happen first and early enough to make a difference.
Recently, I listened with pleasure, and a definite poignancy, to the On Being with Krista Tippett conversation with surgeon and writer Atul Gawande. Their talk was based upon his most recent book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The show (I always listen to the unedited version, but both are available) was titled "What Matters in the End." I would strongly urge you to listen or read the transcript; this is vital conversation for all of us to engage in.
The above-referenced conversation between Tippett and Gawande wasn't focused on hospice, though, or the end-stages of the dying process. Rather, as does his book, the talk revolved around aging, as well, and how to meet old age living well and not with frustration, anger, fear, and suffering as our constant companions. One of the unique aspects of Gawande's book was that it came from the perspective of a doctor and surgeon, a man trained to "fix people," who realized that there were always times when fixing might be stopping aggressive treatments. He realized that he needed to ask "what does a good day look like" for that person and where they were at that moment in their life.
"The conversation I felt like I was having was, do we fight, or do we give up?
And the reality was that it’s not do we fight, or do we give up? It’s what are we fighting for? People have priorities besides just surviving no matter what. You have reasons you want to be alive. What are those reasons? Because whatever you’re living for, along the way, we’ve got to make sure we don’t sacrifice it; and in fact, can we, along the way, whatever’s happening, can we enable it?"
Gawande's book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End is absolutely brilliant and beautiful and much needed. I hope you will make the time to read it, share it, and have a conversation with your loved ones about living well ... now and through the aging and dying process.