Wednesday, January 07, 2009

How We (Age and) Die

Last night, I celebrated my grandfather's 102nd birthday with my grandfather, one of my brothers, all of my paternal first cousins, and a number of close paternal relatives.  One of my grandfather's step sons by his second marriage to a woman who died last year (she was a marvelously smart, funny, tough woman) tapped his glass and delivered an encomium to my grandfather's lifelong support of his family of the kind his family has heard a lot during his life.  Then my grandfather stood to say thank you and then talk bluntly about recent health challenges.  I was glad to hear him speak with apparent honesty about their effect on his peace of mind.  Though, fascinatingly, he did not look inward for either answers or spiritual resources to confront his recent, and unaccustomed, bouts of anxiety, but saw these bouts purely as a medical phenomenon; something that has been happening to him, solely from the outside.  This is all to the good.  Though, to my mind, he's also missing an opportunity.  He's also putting himself entirely in the hands of medical specialists in a way for which neither he nor they is well equipped.  Doctors admit to him that they do not have other 102 year-old patients with similar medical challenges.  He's become something of a guinea pig.

He looked remarkable, last night, and spoke with great clarity and force.  Among the ravishes of age he has not entirely avoided, however, is the tendency of many very-aged people to lash out at others.  Grandpa can be rough on those he loves.  And classically, he has been especially rough on those who have done the most for him.  My brother has had a rough ride, of late.

Recently, I read How We Die:  Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, by Sherwin B. Nuland.   Nuland's stated intent was to demythologize what he calls our faith in a "good death," which is rarely actually experienced by those who die or by those who love them, so that many people suffer agonies of guilt, shame, anger, and 'lack of closure' when their loved one's die.  Most people--Nuland makes clear--die messily, without dignity, and with far greater orders of mental, spiritual and physical chaos than they do order, or 'summing up.'  People tend to fall apart, not quietly slip off into a period of 'reward' for life well-lived.  I've experienced a couple of deaths now, and my experience suggests that Nuland is partly right, at least (though I do think he underplays the extent to which dying people go through a period, either long or short, of spiritual 'preparation' for their death.  I've seen it with my own eyes, in both people and animals.)  One of the disappointments I felt when my father died came from his inability consciously to accept that he was dying, so that he both failed to take care of the practical business of dying--e.g., writing a clear will, say goodbyes and extend blessings to his children--and one of the agonies was experiencing his psychological relapses to earlier stages of his life:  i.e., while, on the one hand, he had 'mellowed' in the last decade of his life to become generally more patient and less given to impetuous rages, in his last few months he struck out angrily and abusively with greater frequency, making life tough for his caretakers.  

Because I now know that this is common, common, common, for those of very advanced age and the dying, I want to take Nuland's advice not to take it so personally, both a spiritual and practical challenge.

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