When I saw this card at a local artist’s shop downtown I was drawn to it right away. I wandered into the shop having some time to spare before attending a community conversation on death and dying a couple of weeks ago, a monthly event hosted by one of our three hospice groups in town. Each month there’s a different topic along the theme of death and dying. Two weeks ago the subject matter involved end-of-life decisions and how and why they differ greatly between doctors and the rest of us.
I’ve been a hospice volunteer for almost 12 years and in that time I’ve learned a great deal about living and gratitude and acceptance through my visits with those at the end of life. In our society it is common to shun aging and death. It’s common to think of death as a morbid topic. But death is part of life, not separate, and not optional. When I look at the photo on the card, pictured above, I see the circle of life. To me the dead pig head is not gross or repulsive, it simply is what it is. On the back of the card it reads: “Shot from our bedroom closet in Seeley Lake. The good Momma Raven shared this feast with her babies that were waiting in the nest just a few trees away.” As one life ends, another begins. This is the way of life.
During the community conversation two weeks ago our evening started out with listening to what was called a radio lab (a term I’m not familiar with). Basically it was a podcast and the hosts were sharing info from interviews that had been done with both doctors and non-doctors asking specific questions about end-of-life care. Interviewees were asked if their life depended on it whether they’d want the following interventions done: CPR, IV fluids, feeding tube, artificial breathing machine, major surgery, and pain medication. If my memory serves me correctly 100% of non-doctors interviewed said yes to all interventions. If their life depended on it they would want everything possible to be done. When the doctors were asked the same questions percentages varied in regards to each intervention from 70-100% against each one, except pain medication. If their life depended on it a majority of doctors would not want anything other than pain medication to be administered. I found this very interesting.
There were three local doctors at the event who spoke on this topic after the podcast was over and those in attendance asked questions and offered comments. One was a prison doctor, another was a hospital doc, and the third was an oncologist. I greatly appreciated their openness, honesty, and insights and found the evening to be very enjoyable and educational. The cause for the large discrepancy between the answers the non-doctors gave in the interview verses the doctors can be whittled down to one word: experience. The reason the doctors don’t want to be given CPR, fluids, breathing or feedings tubes, or have major surgery in order to save their lives is because their experience shows that the rate of effectiveness and quality of life is incredibly low in these circumstances. They’re on the front lines of death and dying and they know what they’d be in for.
(If I can find the radio lab link I will post it below in the comments section in case you want to give it a listen).
The night after the community conversation I woke up around 1:00am and was compelled to write. Here’s my newest spoken word piece, “Life & Death”:
OK – now there’s something I’d like to say that we, the collective we, don’t like to admit in any sort of real way – yeah, yeah, we think, sure, it will happen or whatever but not like today or tomorrow, years down the line I got plenty of time – only, we might not
Despite our best efforts to immortalize ourselves and procreate there’s still currently a 100% mortality rate – we can rally against it, beg, borrow, and steal not to grow old, we can ignore it completely and fight what we’re told but no matter what we do, no matter what we try the odds are against living forever, one day we’re all going to die – our best friends, our mother, our father, our sons and daughters, our lovers will return back to the earth from which we all came, death comes for us all equally the same regardless of race, religion, or sex, it might take 50 years or we could be next but the truth of it is most of us think it won’t happen to us – in our ego driven, self-centered state we clutch to the ridiculously falsely constructed fate that we will someone live indefinitely, we’re simply too uncomfortable to rationalize anything else
We shun aging want to hold fast to youth, we shun death wanting to deny the truth that one day without our consent everything will change in one unexpected moment when someone we love dies – and so we grieve – not only for the loss but because our tear ridden eyes are forced open to the frailty of life we’ve invested so much time denying
When we can see that our days are filled with BOTH elements of living AND dying depending on one another like the soon and the moon we can relax into our in and out breath and soon release the detrimental notions we have about life, old age, and death
We will all pass on one day – there’s little telling when – and no guarantee, there’s no guarantee, that we will see old age my friend
I am grateful for hospice work and the opportunities it has given me to learn how to embrace life more fully and to understand how aging and death really are part of life. I’m “only” 34 years old but I credit my ability to not dye my hair as it turns gray (which it is), talking with my husband about my end-of-life wishes, having a living will, and being able to look at the above photo and see beauty to my volunteer work with hospice and my mindfulness practice. In cultivating a connection with the aging process and death (rather than creating a divide by turning a blind eye to it) it can allow the door to acceptance to swing wide open on its hinges so that the light of life can come brilliantly shining through. It’s not old age and death that cause fear, it’s our own inability to look deeply, embrace, and accept them.