Dying is part of life – so why is talking about it so difficult? Many reasons for that unanswerable question, but now – more than ever is the time we can start reflecting. Never have we had so many octogenarians and nonagenarians on the fact of the planet. Many are living longer more productive lives than they ever dreamed possible. Some, many of them women, are running out of money. As the life-extending reach of medical technology continues, it forces many questions, some of which are very uncomfortable. I just read Judith Johnson’s fourth installment in the series of posts about making peace with death. You can read it here.
Not all of us are afraid of death (which is one thing) or afraid of the process (quite another for many of us). The Woody Allen quip comes to mind: “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Why does the dying process have such a bad rap? Is it the uncertainty of what is happening, where someone is going (or not) that makes so many of us turn away? It is a taboo based on fear and avoidance, how odd that it is avoidance of the inevitable. How does that turning away from dying get unpacked into steps you can try if you want to be “present” and make peace with death? Johnson offers five practical steps: (1) see death as normal (part of life); (2) don’t try to run away or avoid it – this is the biggest tip in my opinion because she touches on the recognition that “death is a great teacher of how to embrace and honor life more deeply;” (3) focus on being of service to those involved in the process; (4) be authentic and express yourself in loving ways; and (5) allow yourself to experience the full range of grief and sorrow that are all parts of dying, death and grief.
I ran across another article about a new course being offered on Gabriola Island in Canada called “Nothing Left Unsaid.” It looks to be an extension of the hospice conversation and all the services it offers for those not necessarily in the end stages of an illness. I found the article’s reference to grief perhaps being classified as a mental illness in the next DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), and that reminded me of another article about that very topic – “Should Grief Be a Mental Illness?” by Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. It seems this fear that grief will be classified as a mental illness originated in a January 25, 2012 article entitled “Grief Could Join List of Disorders” and announces that, based on a new report, the criteria for depression are being reviewed by the American Psychiatric Association and could be expanded to include grief in the DSM-V. Where does this leave those of us who are challenging the death-denying traditions and practices in our own ways? I think it is life-denying, because death is part of life.
The mental health implications of removing the grief exclusion from the definition of depression in the DSM-V are controversial, to say the least. Most of old age, along with many aspects (behaviors) of childhood are now “disorders” or fall within some arguable definition of a mental illness. What does this say about our culture and its views towards aging, the dying process and death? It is more of the death denial in our culture. According to many longevity seekers, death is not necessarily inevitable or the result of natural consequences, rather it is more like a disease to be overcome, a challenge to be bested. This reminds me of Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author of “How We Die,” and several other insightful books A recurrent theme in his books is forthright talk about aging, dying and many other life topics that tend to make us uncomfortable. Next time I’ll write about another favorite doctor/author of mine.