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The Mortality Club

A Good Day to Die

Few of us are naturally comfortable in the presence of the dying. In fact, most of us are uncomfortable even talking about death. We rarely use the word itself. Instead, we say that someone has “passed on” or “passed over” or “gone to a better place.” People even tend to be uncomfortable in the presence of someone who has just lost a loved one. They invite the recent widow or widower to a dinner party, and then do everything they can to steer the conversation away from the elephant in the room. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis says “An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t...Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.” 1 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. (New York, HarperCollins e-books, 1961), 5-6. Read More 
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The Unthinkable

I have been watching a television series entitled Strange and Unusual Deaths. The dramatized tales are based on true stories. All of the deaths are so strange as to be literally “unthinkable.” For example, envision a healthy thirty-year-old girl in her one room apartment on the 22nd floor of an apartment building in one of New York City’s better neighborhoods. We’ll call her Livia. It’s late afternoon and Livia had just laid down for a well-deserved nap. Deep under the street below her window workers are attempting to repair a leak in a steam pipe that provides heat to all of the buildings in her neighborhood. One of the workers neglects to empty out the water that had accumulated in the pipe before turning the steam back on. When the boiling steam hits the water, it creates a huge pressure that blows a violent river of boiling steam, rock and debris straight into the air. The rumbles awaken Livia. She sits up in bed and looks horrified as the blast rips through her window. Flying debris and rocks attack her body like shrapnel from a dirty bomb. She dies an unimaginable death. Read More 
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Dying to be With You

The Hindu ritual known as Sati during which the widow throws her body on the flames that are turning her husband’s corpse into ash is rarely practiced today. It was prevalent when the role of a Hindu woman was solely to service her man. When he died, her reason for living disappeared. She was declared in-valid, irrelevant, as though already dead. Grief so consumed her that she already felt like her flesh was already on fire. Jumping into the flames held no terror; only the promise of reuniting with her mate.

The ritual of Sati has beome virtually non-existent. That’s happened, in part, because widows are no longer regarded as in-valids who have lost their reason for being. Widows are no more likely than widowers to die, or to want to die, as a result of the death of their mate. The sense of loss that overwhelms when a loved one dies, is not gender-specific. It afflicts both men and women. And, it is not age-specific. Both young and old can be so consumed by grief that they choose to die rather than to live without their mate.  Read More 
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Hope: the Ultimate Antidote?

I have an acquaintance who is suffering from advanced ovarian cancer. The cancer has metastizeed and is now in her lungs, her liver, and her kidney. She is in constant pain. Finding it hard to eat, she has lost almost half of her body weight. Though a tall woman, she now weighs less than a hundred pounds. Over the last three years, she has exhausted every possible treatment option that the best of American medicine has to offer. When told by her doctors that there was nothing more they could do, she refused to give up hope.

She travelled to Germany to a clinic that offered a menus of alternative cancer treatments that are unavailable in the U.S.: radio-wave hyperthermia, mistletoe therapy, photodynamic therapy, insulin potentiated chemotherapy, Galvano Electro therapy, vaccines, and so forth. When the German doctors failed to halt the progress of her cancer, she booked herself into one of the sixty cancer hospitals and clinics operating in Tijuana, Mexico. The clinic she chose claimed that they had discovered a virus that would literally eat her cancer, thereby ridding her body of the disease. As I write this, she is still under their care, so I cannot comment on the outcome. Read More 
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Death and Clutter

As I relate in Widow’s Walk: A Personal Journey through Loss, Fear, Anger and Love, I was widowed at the age of thirty-four when my husband’s damanged heart stopped beating. For the next year, I fluctuated on an almost daily basis between being certain I could deal with the immense challenges that my young family, and a castaway caught in a bog of despair. My emotions were raw, shifting from fear to anger to grief. One moment I was confident; the next, despairing. I tried to bolster my confidence and stay out of the grips of despair by reasserting control over an otherwise chaotic life. That took the form of creating endless to do lists, and then foricng myself to complete them even when, or especially when, the natural flow of events suggested I should put my attention elsewhere. Central on those lists was the de-cluttering of my spaces. Read More 
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Easing the Fear of Dying: Imagining the Good Death

I have just finished reading a remarkable book; so remarkable that I gave it a five star review on Amazon and Goodreads. I rarely give five star ratings to anything. I believe if we have to be stuck in this morass of peer review (as opposed to expert review), then at least we can maintain high standards. Katie Roiphe’s exploration of great writers at the end of their lives deserves all five stars. The Violet Hour evokes and provokes. It disturbs even as it soothes. It talks about the author’s decades-long attempt to get comfortable with the thought of dying. She concludes that the best we can do is to “get along with the fear.” 1

I believe it helps to “get along with the fear” by imaging a good death. My idea of a good death is lying in my bed, closing my eyes, and imagining myself on a white raft that is slowly moving further out onto an immense body of deep blue, calm water. I imagine myself floating forever. In short, my vision of a good death is dying in my sleep.  Read More 
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Beware the Shrinking Comfort Zone

Last Tuesday I had an 11:00 appointment with my cardiologist. She’s in Seattle, which is ninety miles from where I live. A few years ago, I didn’t think twice about driving down and back. It was, as they say, “a piece of cake.” My husband, David, used to accompany me. We would use the appointment as an opportunity to get out of the house and do something interesting. Often, we’d go out to lunch and then spend the afternoon at the art museum. Or, we’d explore the new technology offerings at the Apple store. Or, we’d just walk the city streets getting what I called our “city fix.”

We scarcely noticed when we made the transition from voluntarily accompanying one another to medical appointments to the stage when it became necessary. Driving both ways and enduring the inevitable stress of a medical examination became too fatiguing for me. We got to the point when one of us would drive down, and the other, drive back. As that happened,I began to find it too physically demanding to see the doctor and then fill the day with other diversions, especially since those other diversions were located in the center of town, even further from our home. “We’ll see the exhibit next time,” I'd suggest to David. “After all, we don’t want to get stuck in rush hour traffic.”  Read More 
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It's a Shame

Shame afflicts far too many older people. What is shame? Humiliation and embarrassment are two of the synonyms that come to mind. When we feel ashamed, we begin to think that we are unworthy—unworthy of love, of respect or even of sympathy. Doubting our own worthiness, we begin to lose confidence in ourselves. Our self esteem decreases. We feel unempowered, vulnerable and exposed. A vicious cycle ensues. We start to behave like victims, thereby inviting disdain, disrespect or abuse at the hands of people who prey on the weak.

Why is shame an affliction of the old? Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons; so many in fact, that it’s surprising some of us manage to escape the affliction. In a culture that prizes youth, we can feel ashamed of having a body that is deteriorating and can no longer perform as well as it once did. In a society that applauds the strong and independent, we can feel ashamed of needing the help of others. We tough it out, pretending that everything is under control when, indeed, it is not. We can feel ashamed of getting sick, and even of dying.  Read More 
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The Black Room

On my Facebook page devoted to my book, The Hourglass: Life as an Aging Mortal, I recently posted this quotation by singer-songwriter, Amy Grant: “I think for a woman, the hardest thing about growing old is becoming invisible. There's something very front and center about being young.” (https://www.facebook.com/agingmortal). The number of responses I have received indicates that “becoming invisible” is a widespread concern among we who are getting older.

It should be of concern. When we feel so insignificant that others fail to notice us, our self-esteem suffers, and our self-image shifts from a person who is empowered, who matters, who can influence events to that of a person who is exposed, vulnerable, helpless. Such a person whimpers and cowers, and panics at the least sign of trouble. They see no future, only life coming to an end. They grow despondent at the lack of expectation and act as though they are doomed and can do nothing about it.  Read More 
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Tears in the Rain

What do people think about when they are on the verge of death? Their last words give us an indication of their deepest thoughts as they face the great unknown. The more philosophical among us contemplate what death itself means. These contemplations lead to soliloquies that are memorable both in terms of their poetic brilliance, but also in terms of the insights they offer.

That few of us are capable of rendering such poetry at the moment of death is evident to me when I realize the only example I can think of is a fictional hero. At the end of the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, the replicant Roy Batty sits in the rain on the top of a roof with his life-long human adversary whom he has just rescued. He utters an incredibly moving death soliloguy.

“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears...in...rain. Time to die.” Read More 
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