Do You Want to Die?

From HBO’s Band of Brothers

In the opening moments of our weekly hospice team meetings we report on recent patient deaths. How is the family doing? Who was with the person when she died? Was the mortuary and physician informed of his death? If a patient fell during her hospice stay, was the coroner contacted (even the most benign of stumbles requires legal notification)? Did she have a peaceful death? The final words on the medical chart summarizing patients’ deaths are intentionally brief and accurate, not much longer than this paragraph.

As we finished the report on a patient, a nurse spontaneously added, “She died quickly, which is what she wanted because she didn’t want a long, drawn-out death.”

The nurse’s final comment wasn’t necessary for the sparse report. I recollect the patient died comfortably, with family at the bedside. All went as well as possible. But I caught myself wondering: Don’t we all hope to die quickly?

Would anyone want to have a “long, drawn-out death?”

Indeed, who wants to die? I don’t.

American poet Christian Wiman penned a 2013 memoir entitled “My Bright Abyss.” On the literal day of his 39th birthday, Wiman was informed that he had a volatile—and obscure—cancer. Because this particular cancer is rare and relentless, many die before any formal diagnosis. Some like Wiman continue to live, shadowed by impending death. Like too many diseases, there are often more questions than answers. Why do certain patients die quickly while others live past the statistical expectations? Wiman, more than most, can speak honestly and bluntly about death’s meaning.

Life is short, we say, in one way or another, but in truth, because we cannot imagine our own death until it is thrust upon us, we live in a land where only other people die.

The area code for death is always located in some other land than where we live.

Do you want to die?

Will you die?

For the reasonably healthy, the idea of our death is like an idea expressed in a foreign-to-us language. The idea of death for those who are facing death (whether from an opportunistic cancer or bad heart) is also nearly impossible to accept. Other people will die. However, for me, in my case, just maybe . . .

But there are no exceptions.

I understand why people resist mentioning, considering or contemplating their own mortality. We are built to live. I suspect the urge to breathe a next breath rather than resign myself to a last breath is embedded in my (and in your) DNA. Not long after seeing HBO’s “The Band of Brothers,” I read several articles on the actors’ preparation for the drama that follows Easy Company in the last year of World War II. They participated in ten days of an intensive “boot camp” for their roles. Dale Dye, a retired Marine officer and film consultant, sought to give the actors a hint about the mental and physical exhaustion that soldiers confront. When Dye asked the actors how they might feel when a “buddy” was “killed” during battle, they guessed “bad” or “sad.”

Dye (such an ironic name, eh?) replied something like . . . no, you’ll feel “glad” it wasn’t you.

Even if we say we want to die quickly or in our sleep or painlessly, isn’t there another choice that’s even better? Sure, sure, others die. But, as for me . . .

Though I spend considerable professional time pondering dying and grief, I’m glad we resist, ala Wiman, imagining our own death. While I’m a strong advocate for people to talk openly about death, I would always emphasize imagining and planning and living right now.

Doesn’t life, even when death beckons, deserve our full attention?

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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