Memento Mori: Bringing Death Into Conversation

Memento Mori – from Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

Memento Mori: Remember Death, That You Will Die

Last weekend I attended the International Death Symposium in Toronto, Canada. I went with a friend who is a Canadian death midwife.  We both enjoyed it. It was a rather extraordinary place to be, amidst an entire community of folks committed to dispelling the death taboo.  The presenters and attendees were Canadians mostly, some Americans and an Irishman who spoke eloquently about his father’s death and wake.

So, what is conversation anyway?

Definition of Conversation

1 obsolete : CONDUCT, BEHAVIOR

2a(1) : oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas

… we had talk enough but no conversation; there was nothing discussed.

—Samuel Johnson

(2) : an instance of such exchange : TALK; a quiet conversation.

Of course, I couldn’t mention “conversation” without a reference to The Conversation Project, which is a very useful tool to help people (like many of my clients) toalk about the end of their lives and express their wishes and values around that part of life.

In this post, I’ll share a couple highlights from the symposium. One of the “rocks stars” who presented was BJ Miller, a hospice doctor from San Francisco.  You can watch a video here about the “problem of death” in our medical delivery system.  Part of his presentation at the Symposium addressed the conflict of aesthetics of caring for the dying and the widespread use of anesthesia.

Aesthetic versus Anaesthetic

My late mother, an R.N. who received her nurse’s training through the Nurse Cadet Corps, would have been thrilled to hear an M.D. make reference to the work of a nurse.  The nurse was none other than Florence Nightingale, the “mother of nursing,” who wrote about the aesthetics of caring for patients.  Miller contrasted Nightingale’s insistence on aesthetics – a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty – with the current widespread use of anaesthesia (or anesthesia in the US) which is the numbing or rejection of aesthetics in favor of

Insensitivity to pain, especially as artificially induced by the administration of gases or the injection of drugs

In this place of intersection between our ability to sense and perceive beauty with the selfsame capacity to sense pain, what do we make of our commonly accepted and pervasive use of drugs in this country (and so much of the west) to numb us down to “ease our suffering” regardless of where in our lives we encounter that suffering?  It could be at the end of our life, somewhere in-between for a surgical procedure, or it could become a lifestyle treatment for anxiety and depression.  Does it matter where the suffering occurs for which we seek anesthesia?

Our Sense or Capacity to Appreciate the Beautiful is Inextricably Linked to Our Capacity to Feel Pain

Isn’t the pain of dying just the pain of living at a time of greater uncertainty?  Why do we pretend we can draw the distinction so clearly –  particularly during a time of unprecedented numbers of people dying of drug overdoses?  I’m not talking about the present opioid crisis – a recent study has shown that our current opioid overdose epidemic actually began forty years ago and has been increasing – exponentially – since then!

How and why we distinguish between the pain of living and the pain of dying . . .  well, that’s a topic for another blog post!

I’ll write more soon about the Symposium.

I’ll close with Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

 

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

 

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

 

Or rather – He passed us –

The Dews drew quivering and chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

 

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

 

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

From The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas Johnson, ed.

That’s all for now, next time I’ll post about the Phone of the Wind, a.k.a Kaze No Denwa

© 2018 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

The Dead Girl Who Continues to Live

Death Upside Down

Four years ago I wrote a post entitled “When Death Is Not Death: Stumbling Over the Parameters of “Brain Dead” about brain death and other medical-intellectual curiosities.  Turns out that one of the young women whose “brain dead” status I described is still. . . not dead, er… rather alive.  Alive for some people, seems to mean “brain dead” for others!  I read with interest Rachel Aviv’s Feb. 5, 2018 New Yorker article  about Jahi McMath, the teenager who suffered complications from a December 9, 2013 tonsillectomy at an Oakland, California hospital.  Some of the story is about our “health care system” and its values – about whose life matters, what condition of life passes for death.  The biggest challenge I see for all of us and this predicament we find ourselves in with health care in this country – is the dogma of the medical-industrial complex and its insistence on getting everyone “in line” about what passes for death and training us to simply not question the information we are given by the professionals reading the diagnostic screens.

Acting “As If” Death Had a Clear Legal and Medical Definition

To the extent we privilege the measurement of brain activity as a measure of our consciousness, as an indicator of the proof of our existence, we deny the underlying philosophical problem of defining or delimiting life and death (and consciousness).  Our present obsession with the measurable quantification of our biological activities is a major component of our current health care system.  We love the pictures of our insides and their operations in “real time.”  As long as we continue to collectively pretend that one’s existence can be verified by a particular type of brain scan, we will remain in denial.

But that denial is often a safe place, based on the “safety in numbers” type of thinking and as a result of the unquestioned power that doctors have and wield over us with their technocratic medical delivery system.

The Audacity to Think – or Rather Believe – That Our Technology Alone Can Be Used as a Means of Extending Someone’s Life by Prolonging Rudimentary Bodily Functions.

I talk to many people who confuse life support with extending one’s life and also with prolonging the dying process.

How do we tell the difference?  Why, ask the doctors!

Can I be kept alive indefinitely against my will? I haven’t heard that question yet, but I suspect there are versions of it being asked.  I am not comfortable handing over my authority to a health care provider who refuses to consider (let alone struggle with) the bigger questions about life – and death.

At a fundamental level, Jahi McMath’s story is about her family members who simply refused to believe what they were being told by the doctors.

One of the neurologists who examined Jahi McMath was the recently retired chief of neurology at Olive View – UCLA Medical Center.  Dr. D. Alan Shewmon was no stranger to cases where patients – many of them children or youths, survived for months or years after being declared brain dead by the medical establishment.  You can read his 1997 article “Recovering from Brain Death: A Neurologist’s Apologia”   here.

No answers in this post, only questions.  How far does the death taboo extend to our thinking or believing (which are often indistinguishable) about what passes for life?  In our brain-obsessed culture that is fascinated with measurements and arriving at the quantifiable, where does the subjective and mysterious show up – or is it simply banished and its existence denied?

© 2018 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Giving Tuesday – Consider Giving Some Time to an Isolated Elder

Make the Connection!

Today is Colorado Gives Day!

Otherwise known as Giving Tuesday, the day designed to spotlight opportunities for people to give to charitable causes.  The day seems to have come into existence when two organizations, the 92nd Street Y in New York City and the United Nations Foundation came together in October 2012, with the intention to set aside a day that was all about celebrating the generosity of giving, a great American tradition.   According to USA Today, Giving Tuesday raised $180 million in online donations.  That is nothing to sneeze at!

Donating Locally is Easy!

Here in Colorado, we’ve got our own website with over 2,000 nonprofits listed to receive donor’s contributions.  You can visit the website and find a good place for your donation to support if you’re at a loss about which type of charity you’d like to benefit.

Instead of highlighting the worthy nonprofits which serve low-income elders, I’m looking at Colorado Gives Day with a different goal in mind – to raise awareness about reaching out to socially isolated elders in our communities.  I’m not just talking about making contact with folks who reside in senior housing residences, assisted living or skilled nursing facilities, but also to those elders who are “gaining in place” in their own homes and face considerable social isolation based on a number of factors.

What About Donating Your Time?

One way to ease an isolated elder’s isolation and also solidify our own connections with community members we might never have otherwise met – is to volunteer our time – even if for a few short minutes or hours.

You can easily volunteer your time locally through a nonprofit like Metro Volunteers, who will match your skills with a nonprofit looking for someone with your skills.  Whether it is a board of directors position you seek, a mentoring opportunity with a youth, or serving food to people at a shelter – Metro Volunteers can assist.

But the focus of today’s post is about giving time to an elder who is isolated.

There are numerous article and research into the effects of loneliness on the elderly population.  One recent study concluded that loneliness is a significant public health concern among elders.  In addition to easing a potential source of suffering, the identification and targeting of interventions for lonely elders may significantly decrease physician visits and health care costs.

Decreasing an Elder’s Sense of Isolation Helps Prevent Elder Abuse

I’m reposting a link from an elder abuse prevention listserve I am part of, originally posted this morning by the Social Media Manager of the NYC Elder Abuse Center at Weill Cornell Medical College.  The holidays are difficult times for many of us.  She writes “During the holiday season, family gatherings are more commonplace. Older adults feel social isolation more acutely, yet crave the connection. This holiday season NYCEAC is asking our social media followers to commit to have a conversation with an older adult in their life during the month of December. We know everyone benefits from a connection, and improves the health of the community at large, too.” We’re calling our campaign Countering Isolation, or #CounteringIsolation.

Remember that this type of giving of our time to another who doesn’t have the physical, psychological, financial or emotional wherewithal to engage in the broader community is a good thing with many positive benefits for us,  Happy Giving Tuesday!

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Dreaming Into Dying: A Practice for Letting Go

 

dreaming-into-dying

Patience

I thought since last week I wrote on the topic of dreaming into retirement, well – why not take it a step further and look at dreams of the dying or dreams of death?

Research Into Dreams of the Dying

Here’s an interesting article from the New York Times February 2, 2016.  The story is about some work from a team of researchers led by Dr. Christopher Kerr at Hospice Buffalo.   The study was conducted with fifty-nine terminally ill patients, nearly all of whom reported having dreams or visions, most of which were comforting.  The article noted that

The dreams and visions loosely sorted into categories: opportunities to engage with the deceased; loved ones “waiting;” unfinished business. Themes of love, given or withheld, coursed through the dreams, as did the need for resolution and even forgiveness. In their dreams, patients were reassured that they had been good parents, children and workers. They packed boxes, preparing for journeys, and, like Mr. Majors, often traveled with dear companions as guides. Although many patients said they rarely remembered their dreams, these they could not forget.

Reading about “traveling companions” reminded me of a dream my father related to me some weeks before he passed away.

Dreams and Dying as Part of Life’s Process Toward Completion

The article and the research it discusses are remarkable because it addresses one of the taboo subjects around dying as a life process – is there preparation for it with our psyche’s assistance (through dreams or visions) and whether persons sometimes know in advance that death is imminent (notwithstanding the lack of knowledge of an illness).  Our cause and effect, materialist-objectivist obsession with measuring what we can know (or pretend to know, if enough people are in agreement) generally simply denies outright the mystery of the end of life.  But as more people die at home or with hospice and palliative care providers who are not leading a pitched against the “enemy” – collectively disease and death – it seems that we are gaining more personal experience with death and dying.  It might represent a gradual questioning or moving away from the model of technocratic dying in hospitals, where expressions of our relationship with and compassion for dying loved ones generally had to be subjected to the intrusions of our medical-industrial establishment and its protocols administered by “experts.”

A Scientific American Mind article entitled “Vivid Dreams Comfort the Dying” also explored Dr. Kerr’s work, which was published in the American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care.  It seems that the conclusions are likely to be consistent with dreams of dying and deathbed visions and visitations recorded throughout history: that most of the time the person is comforted by the dream or vision of their impending demise, as if Psyche were assisting with the transitions as a kind of midwife.

The Experience Is More Likely to be Labelled a “Vision” if it is Comforting to the Dying Person

If the experience is upsetting to the person, typically a patient receiving hospice care, it might otherwise be termed a “hallucination” or “delirium.”  But I like the unequivocal language of this post from Crossroads Hospice about end-of-life visions:

These visions are not hallucinations or a reaction to medication. The most important thing to do if your loved one is seeing visions or having visitation dreams is to acknowledge and support them. Do not argue with your loved one about the experience, correct them, or try to explain the vision. Do not panic as that can upset your loved one. Instead, take them at their word and encourage them to share the experience with you.

“As a caregiver, it is not our job to prove, disprove, or do experiments,” says Carolyn. “We are there to provide support and comfort.

In most cases, these end-of-life visions are indeed a source of great comfort to the person experiencing them.

It’s reassuring to know that as more people are able to die at home with support from hospice care provided, this aspect of the death taboo is losing more of its sting.  A link to one last resource guide is in order, this one McGill University called “Nearing the End of Life: A Guide for Relatives and Friends of the Dying.”

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Dreaming Into Retirement Planning

Dreamtime Batik

I recently ran across an article by financial “coach” Chris Hogan  about the importance of having a dream to inspire us to plan for and to carry out our plan for retirement.

Hogan’s tactic is to motivate, not intimidate or strike fear. His book “Retire Inspired: It’s Not an Age, It’s a Financial Number” and if you’re interested in listening to one of his podcasts, here’s a link to that.

I liked this idea and of course it wasn’t new.  I thought of Richard Leider, the author who penned the book “Life Reimagined” in 2013 and has championed risk-taking for folks over 50 while cautioning us against being a “former” anything in retirement.  You can watch his Ted x talk about the importance of finding your purpose, particularly to motivate retired people to get out of bed in the morning.

Can we dream into our purpose when we are facing retirement?

Dreaming can, at any time or stage of our lives, help us find our place in the world and to help identify the challenges which face us.   Dreams can help us construct our own personal mythology, our story in terms of what we are here to do and how we are meant to be in this world.

I suppose it depends on how you define “dreaming “of course  – and whether we work on the dreams or they work on us.  I am rather fond of Dr. Jung’s quote from Dreams, Memories, Reflections, which he wrote when he was eighty-one:

Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.

It’s a rather slippery slope, isn’t it?  Particularly for us Americans who have always felt so strongly about being in charge of our lives.  We who know such boundaries and demarcations flowing from our sense of autonomy. Retirement forces us to think differently about what we do with the rest of our lives.  We often thing about this as a sad, backward gaze, held and nurtured for its lost glory.  But it can be a time for us to lighten our load of our thinking about our lives and about its doings.  Perhaps it can be liberation.

Leider talks about the three “M’s” of money, medicine (health) and meaning – the fundamental things that help us identify what we really need so we can be free to leave behind the other things that may simply distract us.

I think for many of us the fear of retirement, and why we are loath to plan for it, is that we don’t want to allow ourselves the space to dream because, well, it might not be what we think we “always wanted” or what was expected of us.  I think it also has a lot to do with our fear of aging in general as the run up to the inevitable end of our lives.

So what to do in the meantime?

Start dreaming, particularly your own dream, not someone else’s!  And if you don’t want to dream because it sounds too silly, then take Leider’s napkin test and see if you can pull that off!  Get together with a loved one or colleague and take “the napkin test” to discover what is really important to you, what gives you joy and allows you to feel connected to others.  Stop and reflect.  You can watch (on Daniel Pink’s website) a one minute and twenty second video featuring Leider explaining how to do this

I’ve condensed a bit of Hogan’s advice here from that Washington Post article above:

  • A secure retirement isn’t accidental;
  • Dream your dream and make a plan that will get you to that dream;
  • Execute the plan with a commitment to do what is necessary to bring it to fruition.

Lastly, here is another article by Hogan about  What do you need to do to retire with $1 million?

Happy dreaming!

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Boulder Senior Law Day is Saturday, September 23, 2017

Venetian Canal

 

The Boulder County Senior Law Day will take place this Saturday at the Plaza Event Center in Longmont, CO.  Here is their website if you are interested in registering for the event or would like more information.  There will be 20 different presentations on topics ranging from how to serve as a fiduciary or health care agent for another person; the basics of Medicaid and what you need to know; what’s “trending” in elder fraud (presented by Jane Walsh, Deputy DA from the 20th judicial district); special needs planning and many other interesting topics.  I have been asked to present on ethical wills and leaving a meaningful legacy.

I have written several blog posts on this topic, but I find something new to write about each time I return to this topic!  Most of us estate planning attorneys need to have a sharp eye for identifying potential minefields in a client’s choice of beneficiaries.  It goes without saying we must be vigilant to find ways of minimizing conflict and potential conflict among fiduciaries (agents under powers of attorney, trustee, and the like) as well as beneficiaries in assisting a client in putting together a comprehensive estate plan for managing disability or incapacity (using durable powers of attorney) and for post-mortem planning (by using a will and other available tools suited to the client’s situation).

The estate planning documents we draft for clients are legal documents and we lawyers tend to draft them in ways that are free from language regarding the testator’s (the legal term for a person who makes a will) thoughts or feelings about particular persons or things, but some important documents can help fill in the gaps or empty spaces.  One of these is an ethical will.

Another related document is what is known as a “side letter” which is focused more closely on fleshing out and providing the context for a testator’s intent concerning the rationale for distribution in a will or other estate planning document.  These “side letters” are not without risk and they will likely not be effective in swaying contentious beneficiary who holds to the belief that they have been cheated out of a larger share of an estate.

What I will be talking about Saturday are the benefits of drafting an ethical will or legacy letter to “bequeath,” if you will, the intangible legacy and values of a person’s life.  This writing can also greatly benefit the writer of the document to provide an opportunity help establish one’s own meaning of existence and to weave together the pieces of one’s life into something one might call purpose.  In today’s always-on age of constant chatter, busy-ness and noise, such an exercise of reflection can be priceless!

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Identifying the Inner Landscape of Elderhood

 

Italian Arch

Last week I went on a “spring break” trip of sorts. . .  to the Jung in Ireland seminar with the Monks of Glenstal Abbey. This year’s topic was shame and pride.  It was my third trip to Ireland for this seminar and this year’s topic resonated with me because I encounter these difficult emotions – particularly shame – in my elder law and probate practice.  Some of the issues I see, which have burgeoned into legal difficulties and which may necessitate legal proceedings – often resulting in extensive involvement by a court, might begin with these difficult emotions and play out badly in the family relationship context.

In my experience, one of the most difficult things for an elder parent to contend with is a squabble over how the elder’s health challenge or cognitive decline or other age-related malady will be managed by the adult children.  This can be a difficult place for a family as the elder parent just wants the kids to stop fighting, while the children often wage a pitched battle over who has the correct approach to helping the parent manage difficulties, as well as difficulties in identifying and upholding what each child perceives (often differently) as the best interests of a parent.  These adult children often cannot understand that each of them may be just as convinced as another sibling with an opposing point of view that they are uniquely equipped to handle the delicate issue of managing finances, helping secure appropriate housing or serving as a health care agent for their parent.

I offer these posts as a kind of alternative to an elder parent doing nothing – hoping not to cause world war III among their children.   Some parents hold to their firmly held belief that they “raised their kids right” and so naïvely want to believe that this thinking will somehow immunize them from conflict or worse, exploitation.  Many elders simply choose to wait, and simply hope for the best in the event a crisis occurs, to see how things might play out on a kind of wait and see basis.  There is an alternative to this denial!

This alternative I describe is about the kairos of elderhood. Kairos being the quality of time, the paying attention to the present and its opportunities to see what is in front of us and that which we have set before ourselves.  In our culture we focus almost exclusively on the quantitative aspect of time – chronos – as we simultaneously obsess over our longevity and puzzle over what to do with it.  In this post, I will identify the inner landscape as a determiner of what we see and perceive as the outside world – and how this might free us from some of our anxieties about aging and its deleterious effect on our human doing-ness.

What is the “inner landscape” to which I refer?  Well, the inner would refer here to the landscape which is inside us, how we see the world. I am reminded of Anais Nin’s keen observation that “we see the world not as it is but as we are.”  How can we remember this important detail in our “always on” world, where the disease of busy-ness is a chronic affliction and the pace of our lives offers few opportunities (much less encouragement) of staking out some reflective and contemplative time in our lives to consider an inner landscape?

In his book Mindsight, the psychiatrist Daniel Siegel offers an insightful description about personal transformation(s) that can lead to an integration of a self otherwise consisting of many disparate aspects.  I quote Mindsight at 238:

This drive for continuity and predictability [of a sense of self] runs head-on into our awareness of transience and uncertainty.  How we resolve the conflict between what is and what we strive for is the essence of temporal integration.

How many of us could remember by heart Blaise Pascal’s injunction “in difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart?”  If we can remember, perhaps that something beautiful is a feature of our inner landscape, made visible to us by an experience when we were outdoors in nature, in an interaction with another person or being, or perhaps by some sense of our identity relative to the “outside” world.  Our sense of permanence is illusory, and draws us again to the distinction between what we see and what we look for – the latter being where the Kairos quality of time resides.

That “something beautiful” is perhaps what Viktor Frankl describes in this quote from Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he describes the challenge of readjusting to life outside for the concentration camp survivors like himself:

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

I am reminded also of “Against the Pollution of the I,” by another concentration camp survivor (the blind French resistance leader), Jacques Lusseyran, where he describes “seeing” (remember he lost his sight as a child) …

It is often said that seeing brings us closer to things.  Seeing certainly permits orientation, the possibility of finding our way in space.  But with what part of an object dies it acquaint us?  It establishes a relationship with the surface of things.  With the eyes we pass over furniture, trees, people.  This moving along, this gliding, is sufficient for us.  We call it cognition.  And here, I believe, lies a great danger.  The true nature of things is not revealed by their first appearance.

Against the Pollution of the I, at 54 (2006: Morning Light Press).

I will end this post with another question, akin to the kairos-chronos distinction: If we as individuals and as persons in relationship with loved ones valued our time (how we spend it) as much as we do our space (how we fill it with stuff) – could this change our relationships for the better?

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Ethical Wills and “Legacy Letters” – an Overview

denver elder law

Italian Marble

It’s been a few years (3 ½)  since I’ve written on this topic, and a colleague recently asked me to speak on this at an event this fall.   The fact is, I think writing an ethical will is another way of imparting meaning into our lives – whether we are young and healthy and writing to our young children about what we hold dear and hope to carry into their future, or we are old and sick and recording more of a legacy of a life lived.   In my previous blog post, I described five different approaches to writing an ethical will: an explanation; an expectation; an affirmation; an historical document (think genealogy or heirlooms); and a statement of values.

In today’s post, I’m focusing on the last approach – a statement of values.  An ethical will in this context is essentially a document which can serve to identify those values, that “something” to live for, which has sustained the author and given meaning and texture to the tapestry of one’s life.

The ethical will or legacy letter is the big picture view of what can be encompassed in estate planning.  Keep in mind that the majority of Americans die without any estate plan in place.  Many of those folks might simply respond to a question about any need for planning with a retort “I’ll be dead, so I won’t care” – but I think there is some fear lurking behind that otherwise lackadaisical sounding statement. . .

If one chooses to engage in estate planning by executing: powers of attorney which name others to act on our behalf in the event we are unable (which may include a conversation and some direction about how money should be spent for one’s care); a living will to express our end of life health care preferences; and a will which sets forth how our estate will be distributed then  — is it really much of a stretch to go from identifying what you need to live to identify something to live for? I think not!

Here is a link to a website with some touching examples of ethical wills written by a variety of people.   What I am suggesting here is that the ethical will can help us to live life more fully – read: by preparing to die – and as preparation to face the rest of one’s life, with whatever level of fear, exhilaration or trepidation that entails.

So here are some ideas to employ for that statement of values:

Describe who you have been or who you are now in relationship to your family of origin, your family of creation and perhaps your family of choice;

  • Write about those things that you hold most dear, what you are grateful for and perhaps also the things you regret;
  • Describe those principles, rituals, or teachings, etc., which have been important to you and explain why they hold such meaning to you; and
  • Write about aspects of your life and your values that demonstrate the meaning of your life, the experience of that meaning and how you have constructed the meaning(s) over the course of your life.

These are just a few examples of how, in the creative act of putting into words one’s life story, or describing the values one holds dear, one can construct a broader meaning and see connections of the disparate or seemingly disconnected parts of a life in new ways.  The context or impetus for telling one’s story may be significant to the context of the story or perhaps not at all.  Constructing a life story – even if it is only an early part of a life – is an example of how we as human are engaged in the search for meaning.  I have always been fond of Ernest Becker’s term for our species – homo poetica or “man the meaning maker.”

This search for meaning, as well as our attempts to construct and our longing to impart meaning, can be a very useful tool for us at any age.  The ethical will as an example can help us integrate our life’s experiences and help us see the “big picture” of the meaning of our life and the lives of others as well.  It reminds me of Viktor Frankl and his logotherapy, based on “will to meaning.”   Each of us, no matter what is the ease or difficulty we face in our lives, remain free to find the meaning in our own life.  Writing an ethical will can help us construct that meaning.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

A Brief History of Death

Living and Dying at the Same Time

Can you discern in this picture what is alive and what is dead?

Death, the inevitable.  Death, the rejected.  Do we feel sorry for death? No! Of course not.  Is it separate from our lives or merely a natural part of them? What parts of our lives are we more comfortable with or at ease with and how do these factor into our relationship with death?

Whoa Barb . . . relationship with death, relationship to death.  What is it that holds us to our life and, inevitably, leads us to our death?  What is the meaning of this relationship? Well, I can only think that this kind of question is what poetry was meant for. . .  so I turn to the Trinidadian poet Derek Walcott’s poem Love After Love:

The time will come when, with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

 

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

 

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

Here is the poem read aloud (by Jon Kabat-Zinn)

When I started to put together this post, I thought I’d try a google search of my title, which tends to bring up something fascinating.  Sure enough, there was another reminder about my lapsed New Yorker subscription . . . a post dated 11/6/16 by Nir Baram.  The New Yorker has such insidious ways of luring subscribers back again and again!  But I will remain undeterred.

So what might I say for this kind of post – brief, about something as impersonal and ultimately personal as death?  I might describe the denouncing, distancing, the walking or running away from, that so many of us steadily manage over the years of our lives.  But what happens when we realize that the distancing has only been in the shape of a giant and fascinatingly graceful circle, or perhaps a woven pattern or a circuitous route ala Jackson Pollock?  Can we even recognize it as our own, part of our heritage as mortal beings?

How is it (I asked my engineer friend this last night) that we can gauge or measure someone or some thing’s age?  Its beginning and its end?  I certainly see the need for practical purposes to come up with such boundaries.   But we tend to observe them without any questions at all.   And the location of that separation as well as its origins, well that’s another matter.  We might arrive at a place where or a time when we might question those boundaries.  Whose death is it? Who dies?  Stephen Levine’s book explores this well.

My post today is perhaps a window dressing of sorts for some writing I will be doing about the Colorado End of Life Options Act.  I will be interrogating some of the ideas, beliefs, thoughts, expectations and so forth about dying and death (particularly euthanasia) in some future posts.  I’ll close with a quote from a favorite poet, E.E. Cummings:

Unbeing dead isn’t being alive.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Deathbed Ethics, Proposition 106 and Remembering How to Die

Closed Shutters

Closed Shutters

We have forgotten how to die.  We have forgotten that it is death, as part of our life, which makes us human.  Death is just like the rest of our life – unpredictable and subject to constant change. That is what we have forgotten.  We have become obsessed with our identity and being “in control,” in such ways that support our limited notions of autonomy.  This is superficial, to say the least and I don’t think it has anything to do with preserving anyone’s human dignity.

In Proposition 106, physician assisted death (PAD) or physician assisted suicide is put forward as a “right” to be asserted by a limited and defined class of individuals suffering from a terminal illness who are not expected to live for more than six months.  But wait, this sounds like qualifications for a hospice script – doesn’t it?  Have people who are advancing the recognition of this “right to die” fully explored the parameters of hospice and palliative care?  I think many have not.  It is much simpler, much more straightforward and slogan-empowering to clamor for a right than it is to take a “wait and see” approach – which is what most of us end up doing anyway. Why do I bring up palliative and hospice care in this context? Because I think the need to advance any “right to die” here is superfluous to the already existing but not well-known by the public services of hospice and palliative care health professionals.

In my previous posts, I mentioned the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Washington v. Glucksberg, 502 U.S. 702, 737 (1997) and I want to follow up just a bit on that decision and its wake.  I’m thinking particularly of Justice O’Connor’s concurrence, referring to pain management palliative and hospice care:

In sum, there is no need to address the question whether suffering patients have a constitutionally cognizable interest in obtaining relief from the suffering that they may experience in the last days of their lives. There is no dispute that dying patients in Washington and New York can obtain palliative care, even when doing so would hasten their deaths. The difficulty in defining terminal illness and the risk that a dying patient’s request for assistance in ending his or her life might not be truly voluntary justifies the prohibitions on assisted suicide we uphold here.

The “right to die” in terms of PAD would appear to be promoted at the expense of the prospect of any effective management of pain.  The further juxtaposition can be seen in these two articles by leading legal scholars: Robert Burt’s “The Supreme Court Speaks – Not Assisted Suicide but a Constitutional Right to Palliative Care,” in 337 New England Journal of Medicine 1234 (1997) and Erwin Chemerinsky’s “Washington v. Glucksberg Was Tragically Wrong,” in 106 Michigan Law Review 1501 (2008).

So why do I write another post about Prop 106? Because the “right to die” as it concerns a patient’s right to end their pain . . . is simply too misleading.  Terminal pain management, about which most people want to believe this proposed legislation concerns itself – is another matter separate from “the right to die.”  This is borne out by the Oregon statistics from 2015 which I referred to in my previous post.

Let’s set the record straight here.  The information collected from Oregon about those persons choosing to fill the prescription for the life ending medications did so based on their diminished enjoyment of life, their loss of autonomy, and their perceived loss of dignity. A surprisingly small number of people mentioned “inadequate pain control” as a reason to choose assisted death from a physician.  Why might this be that pain control factored in so small a number of responses? We don’t know because the statistics available don’t offer further information.  But I think it is not a stretch to conclude that most of those folks choosing to get a scrip filled for lethal medications already had their pain pretty well managed, thanks to hospice or palliative care.

The real reasons for these folks to get the medications was to manage the psychic pain of living at the end of their life, in which their terminal illness compromised their ability to live independently, autonomously and with the dignity with which they had previously known.  This is a qualitatively different kind of pain! This pain may be incidental to the “pain of dying” but it is most certainly a pain of living, living with the uncertainty of what challenges tomorrow will bring.  We have simply forgotten this important detail!

What kind of patient autonomy do we want to protect as a matter of law and public policy? I think we need to be clear about what this law would change and how it would work, and not to be dazzled by the shine of a new “right” that has little to do with the context – medical, legal, ethical or psychological – of how such a right would be exercised.  If this Prop 106 is really about saying it is okay to take one’s own life (I don’t even like saying “commit suicide” because it is fraught with moral implications that further perpetuate the underlying loss of the person’s survivors), then let’s be clear about that.  I believe that is the implicit underlying message, but few people are comfortable with looking much under the surface of the legislation and its long-term unintended implications.

We are talking about the pain of living a life without the independence and autonomy to which we had grown accustomed and the terminal disease or condition robs the patient of that dignity of autonomy.  I will be the first to state I am not equipped to decide for another when their terminal pain has reached such a level that palliative or hospice medications will not suffice to manage the pain.  But I think the pain we are talking about is not the physical pain, which palliative and hospice care providers have become experts in managing, no we are talking about the pain of living a life, the end of which is one “we have not chosen.”  It is implicitly stating – I do not want that challenge and I choose death instead.  Let’s be honest about that choice and our ability to choose it!

In some important respects, Prop 106 presents essentially a right to die versus a right to hope.  If we are in the midst of a terminal illness, rapidly advancing in its ravages of our bodies and our abilities to function independently, we are much less likely to give up hope if we feel supported, if we are not made to feel as if we are a burden on others.  Here physician assisted death resembles the choices underlying suicide as they vary in number among different cultures across that world.  Suicide has been characterized by Durkheim as related to sociocultural factors and in particular the integration of a person in family, economic, political and religious life.   I posit that we ought to be looking to each other for assistance, for hope, especially in the face of imminent death, and not be so eager to show the door to those of us who feel they have become a burden or simply want to “choose death.”

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org