Sunday, March 4, 2012

Death is Not a Dirty Word

     For as long as we have records, people have been afraid of dying – partly because we didn’t have good pain strategies and partly because many feared the unknown or their own beliefs about what comes after death. 

     But it has only been in the last 100 years that the dying process itself  has become so foreign and invisible to us that the unknown about the dying process causes us so much fear and anxiety.

     Less than 100 years ago 80% of all people died in their own homes, the average life expectancy was 50 years and the infant mortality rate was 24 times higher than today: more than 16% of children died before their first birthday.  People may not have liked it, but they were very familiar with death and the dying process.  Parents knew the anguish of losing a child; children witnessed the decline and death not only of grandparents, but also of siblings and parents; and the primary caretakers through illness and death were close family members in the home.

     Today, almost 70% of people die in institutions (hospitals and nursing homes) and the average life expectancy is close to 80 years.  We do not witness or participate in the dying process often in our lifetimes.

     Dying has become a mystery to us and the rituals we once had of washing the body, preparing for burial and the burial itself have been transferred into the hands of strangers.

     In addition, medicine has come so far that we expect it to prevent death, stop the aging process and keep us eternally happy, healthy, comfortable and young.  Aging and death are seen as failures of the medical community and our own will.

     Death has become a dirty word.

     We are awkward around the dying and bereaved.  We don’t know what to do or say.  We avoid witnessing dying and prefer that others do not discuss it.

     But we are making a big mistake.

     Death comes to all of us and everyone we know and love at some point.  Our ostrich approach to dying benefits no one, least of all ourselves and our children.

     Those who have witnessed the peaceful  death of a loved one – human or animal – are  universally transformed in any number of ways, almost always in a positive way.  Most feel a deeper and stronger connection to the one who has passed, a reduction in anxiety about dying ourselves, an appreciation of the beauty and gift that is our own lives and the lives of those we love, and a peace within.

     There are times when it is not possible to care for your loved ones at home, and some occasions where there is a need to be in a hospital, but there are many times when there is a choice whether to care for our own at home, allow others to care for them somewhere else, or hide from death altogether by ignoring the situation.  In the animal world, we are also often faced with the choice of euthanasia.

    Not every situation allows for hospice-assisted natural death at home, but if the opportunity were there, would you have the courage to try?  Would you be able to overcome your fear of death and isolation from the dying process to take that leap of faith?  Could you trust yourself, your knowledge, your skills, your instincts, and most of all your compassion enough to be that loving family caretaker?

     We think you can.  We believe in you.  And we know, no matter what comes,  you will never regret trying.

     Death is not a dirty word.  Take that leap of faith.

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