It’s Time to Talk About Death

The coronavirus pandemic highlights how much we need to have conversations about end-of-life care.

By Sunita Puri, M.D.

Joseph, a man in his 70s, has been on a ventilator for two weeks. His heart, lungs and kidneys are failing. Though I know these facts about his physiology, I will never see him up close. I can only glance at him through clear glass doors, the ventilator and dialysis machine obscuring his face. The coronavirus has limited the number of physicians who can enter his room.

I cannot sit with Joseph’s wife and children to ask what sort of medical care he would want. I cannot read their body language, lean in toward them or offer a tissue as they cry. Now, because of the coronavirus, most hospitals don’t allow families to visit.

Instead, I met Joseph’s wife and children on a Zoom conference call.

“I want to apologize to you for being a face on a screen,” I began. “I wish we could talk about this in person.”

They nodded together, their eyebrows furrowed.

“I wish that I had better news to share,” I said. “Unfortunately, despite our very best efforts to support Joseph’s heart, lungs and kidneys, his body is showing us that he is getting sicker.” I watched, disembodied from a distance, as they hugged each other and cried.

His wife told me that Joseph had never talked with her about what he would want in this sort of situation. “I don’t know what he would say,” she said. “We didn’t think this would ever happen.”

Americans are not good at talking about death. But we need to be prepared for when, not if, illness will strike. The coronavirus is accelerating this need.

In Italy, doctors have had to make excruciating decisions about which patients receive ventilators, which are in short supply. In the United States, we are already facing shortages of life-sustaining therapies; doctors will need to make these same difficult decisions.

Our collective silence about death, suffering and mortality places a tremendous burden on the people we love, and on the doctors and nurses navigating these conversations. We should not be discussing our loved one’s wishes for the first time when they are in an I.C.U. bed, voiceless and pinned in place by machines and tubes.

Talking about death is ultimately talking about life — about who and what matters to us, and how we can live well even when we are dying. Rather than being motivated by fear and anxiety, we can open these discussions from a place of care and concern.

Here’s how I opened a conversation about death with my own parents earlier this month: “Mama, Daddy, seeing a lot of people getting really sick with the coronavirus made me think of both of you. None of us knows what’s around the corner, and I want to be sure I know what you would want for yourselves when you get really sick,” I told them. “I want to be your voice so that I can make decisions for you, not for myself.”

“If I needed a ventilator for a short time, or dialysis, that would be OK, but I would only want treatments that would help me stay independent,” my mother replied.

My father nodded in agreement. “My main hope is to be with all of you. If I will lose my ability to be myself, if my mind will never be clear, please just let God take me,” my father told me, stirring his tea.

Though it is a daunting task, talking about death offers opportunities for grace and connection with our loved ones. Last summer, I watched as a patient’s brother told her for the first time how much he loved her, just before she told him she was choosing hospice instead of a clinical trial. In the fall, I walked the wife of a patient into her husband’s hospital room, where they renewed their wedding vows amid cake, balloons and glittery confetti.

“This was what she always wanted,” he told me when we discussed what was most important to him. “I put it off for so long, but I have to do it before I die.”

Working in the hospital with patients suffering from the coronavirus made me ask myself the questions I hope you will ask yourselves and the people you love:

  • What is most important to me in my life? (My family and pets, and the ability to write and doctor).
  • What makes my life meaningful? (My work; dancing; being outdoors; being with my loved ones).
  • What sort of quality of life would be unacceptable to me? (Being permanently bed-bound or neurologically devastated; indignity and suffering; depending on others for personal care).
  • Who is best positioned to speak on my behalf? (My brother).
  • Who would I not want involved in decision making? (Family living abroad).
  • Would I want to undergo C.P.R. should my heart stop? (Only if the issue leading to the cardiac arrest is reversible. If my heart stopped even when I was being sustained on life support machines or dying from an incurable disease, then I’d prefer to die peacefully rather than with C.P.R.).
  • What would bring me comfort if I were hospitalized? (Pictures of my family; music I love playing in my room; prayer).

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions. The Conversation Project offers many more, as well as guidance on how and when to begin these conversations. The Serious Illness Conversation Guide gives health care providers a road map of when and how to start asking patients about dying. Both resources offer the compassionate, incisive — and often unfamiliar — language required for us to ask the right questions and empower our loved ones to share specific, honest answers.

Confronting our fears about death — having a conversation about it in frank terms — can be alternately terrifying and tender. Yet knowing how to honor our loved ones’ wishes when they can’t speak for themselves is one of the bravest and most loving things we can do.

Complete Article HERE!

Getting Familiar with Life’s Certainty: The D-Word

“I’m gonna die, you’re gonna die. So is everyone we’ve ever loved and hated. And that’s OK.”

By Molly Marco

When I thought about what to write for my End Well blog post, I struggled to think of something different than what I submitted last year. The story I share in last year’s piece is one I’ve now told a million times. I know it well — where to put the emphasis (“Ever onward!”) and what will get the audience’s applause. Conversely, I know what parts of my story people may want to deny or avoid: Death. Dying. Fears and deficits that come with a brain cancer diagnosis.

In July 2016, my brain tumor was discovered after I fainted off a bar stool at a downtown Detroit coffee shop. Turns out, it wasn’t just a simple faint: I had a grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma. A grade 3 astrocytoma is a junior glioblastoma (or, more accurately, a glioblastoma is a grade 4 astrocytoma). It is incurable and considered a terminal diagnosis, though many patients prefer to call it a chronic illness. That doesn’t mean I’m dying tomorrow — unless, as my neuro-oncologist once told me, I get hit by a car or something like that — it just means we don’t have a fix.

We expect my tumor to, maybe, charge up and for those rogue astrocytes to return — either as anaplastic astrocytoma again, or GBM. One or the other, no lesser. I won’t get better, we just hope that we can hold it off as long as possible before its encore performance. Worse than reoccurrence or GBM? There’s not really anything worse. It’s a turd sandwich.

Though come to think of it, there is worse. Worse is denying that reoccurrence is possible. Worse is convincing myself that I am cured and “cancer-free” (no brain cancer patient should ever be told that falsity) only to crumble and fall to pieces when new growth appears on a future MRI.

After Molly finished her chemotherapy, she got this tattoo. | Memento Mori: Remember you must die. Amor Fati: Love your fate

Worse is not mentally planning for future treatment, including palliative and end-of-life care. When to demand my off-switch to be clicked, so my family isn’t left making the difficult choice for me.

There may come a time when I can’t write and I can’t speak, so I plan to make these decisions while I’m still in control of my think-box.

Losing my mom last year and my aunt recently brings certain things to the forefront of my now with urgency: Death is guaranteed. Death will happen. I want to be ready. Not because I’m morbid or depressed, but the opposite of that. The thought of leaving this world — everyone and everything I love — scares me. The thought of the act of dying scares me more than death itself, to be honest. I need to be on better terms with death and dying.

If death is anything like falling off a barstool and passing out, I can handle that. The thought of an eternal afterlife I can’t even comprehend, but that sounds cool, too. But dying in pain and afraid? That is what I fear. I don’t want that. However, I choose to talk about it so I am as familiar with death and dying as I am with my own name. It’s not because I crave death, it’s because I love being alive with every fiber of my being. I love life so much.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that in loving life — truly loving life — we can accept death as a thing we all do. There should be no stigma attached to something absolutely guaranteed from the moment we come into existence: I’m gonna die, you’re gonna die. So is everyone we’ve ever loved and hated. WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE. That’s that. And that’s OK.

Last year, I suggested we live our best lives and live them right now. This year? Live our best lives, live them right now, because one day — you are going to die. Learn to let it be OK. And be ready.

Complete Article HERE!

How Does a Buddhist Monk Face Death?

If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, we can make peace with its end.

Geshe Dadul Namgyal

By George Yancy

This is the first in a series of interviews with religious scholars from several faiths — and one atheist — on the meaning of death. This month’s conversation is with Geshe Dadul Namgyal, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who began his Buddhist studies in 1977 at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, and went on to earn the prestigious Geshe Lharampa degree in 1992 at Drepung Loseling Monastic University, South India. He also holds a master’s degree in English Literature from Panjab University, Chandigarh, India. He is currently with the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, Emory University. This interview was conducted by email. — George Yancy

George Yancy: I was about 20 years old when I first became intrigued by Eastern thought, especially Buddhism. It was the transformation of Siddhartha Gautama to the Buddha that fascinated me, especially the sense of calmness when faced with competing desires and fears. For so many, death is one of those fears. Can you say why, from a Buddhist perspective, we humans fear death?

Dadul Namgyal: We fear death because we love life, but a little too much, and often look at just the preferred side of it. That is, we cling to a fantasized life, seeing it with colors brighter than it has. Particularly, we insist on seeing life in its incomplete form without death, its inalienable flip side. It’s not that we think death will not come someday, but that it will not happen today, tomorrow, next month, next year, and so on. This biased, selective and incomplete image of life gradually builds in us a strong wish, hope, or even belief in a life with no death associated with it, at least in the foreseeable future. However, reality contradicts this belief. So it is natural for us, as long as we succumb to those inner fragilities, to have this fear of death, to not want to think of it or see it as something that will rip life apart.

We fear death also because we are attached to our comforts of wealth, family, friends, power, and other worldly pleasures. We see death as something that would separate us from the objects to which we cling. In addition, we fear death because of our uncertainty about what follows it. A sense of being not in control, but at the mercy of circumstance, contributes to the fear. It is important to note that fear of death is not the same as knowledge or awareness of death.

Yancy: You point out that most of us embrace life, but fail or refuse to see that death is part of the existential cards dealt, so to speak. It would seem then that our failure to accept the link between life and death is at the root of this fear.

Namgyal: Yes, it is. We fail to see and accept reality as it is — with life in death and death in life. In addition, the habits of self-obsession, the attitude of self-importance and the insistence on a distinct self-identity separate us from the whole of which we are an inalienable part.

Yancy: I really like how you link the idea of self-centeredness with our fear of death. It would seem that part of dealing with death is getting out of the way of ourselves, which is linked, I imagine, to ways of facing death with a peaceful mind.

Namgyal: We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.

Yancy: That is a beautiful description. Can you say more about how we achieve a peaceful mind?

Namgyal: Try first to gain an unmistaken recognition of what disturbs your mental stability, how those elements of disturbance operate and what fuels them. Then, wonder if something can be done to address them. If the answer to this is no, then what other option do you have than to endure this with acceptance? There is no use for worrying. If, on the other hand, the answer is yes, you may seek those methods and apply them. Again, there is no need for worry.

Obviously, some ways to calm and quiet the mind at the outset will come in handy. Based on that stability or calmness, above all, deepen the insight into the ways things are connected and mutually affect one another, both in negative and positive senses, and integrate them accordingly into your life. We should recognize the destructive elements within us — our afflictive emotions and distorted perspectives — and understand them thoroughly. When do they arise? What measures would counteract them? We should also understand the constructive elements or their potentials within us and strive to learn ways to tap them and enhance them.

Yancy: What do you think that we lose when we fail to look at death for what it is?

Namgyal: When we fail to look at death for what it is — as an inseparable part of life — and do not live our lives accordingly, our thoughts and actions become disconnected from reality and full of conflicting elements, which create unnecessary friction in their wake. We could mess up this wondrous gift or else settle for very shortsighted goals and trivial purposes, which would ultimately mean nothing to us. Eventually we would meet death as though we have never lived in the first place, with no clue as to what life is and how to deal with it.

Yancy: I’m curious about what you called the “gift of life.” In what way is life a gift? And given the link that you’ve described between death and life, might death also be a kind of gift?

Namgyal: I spoke of life as a gift because this is what almost all of us agree on without any second thought, though we may differ in exactly what that gift means for each one of us. I meant to use it as an anchor, a starting point for appreciating life in its wholeness, with death being an inalienable part of it.

Death, as it naturally occurs, is part of that gift, and together with life makes this thing called existence whole, complete and meaningful. In fact, it is our imminent end that gives life much of its sense of value and purpose. Death also represents renewal, regeneration and continuity, and contemplating it in the proper light imbues us with the transformative qualities of understanding, acceptance, tolerance, hope, responsibility, and generosity. In one of the sutras, the Buddha extols meditation on death as the supreme meditation.

Yancy: You also said that we fear death because of our uncertainty about what follows it. As you know, in Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates suggests that death is a kind of blessing that involves either a “dreamless sleep” or the transmigration of the soul to another place. As a Tibetan Buddhist, do you believe that there is anything after death?

Namgyal: In the Buddhist tradition, particularly at the Vajrayana level, we believe in the continuity of subtle mind and subtle energy into the next life, and the next after that, and so on without end. This subtle mind-energy is eternal; it knows no creation or destruction. For us ordinary beings, this way of transitioning into a new life happens not by choice but under the influence of our past virtuous and non-virtuous actions. This includes the possibility of being born into many forms of life.

Yancy: As a child I would incessantly ask my mother about a possible afterlife. What might we tell our children when they express fear of the afterlife?

Namgyal: We might tell them that an afterlife would be a continuation of themselves, and that their actions in this life, either good or bad, will bear fruit. So if they cultivate compassion and insight in this life by training in positive thinking and properly relating to others, then one would carry those qualities and their potential into the next. They would help them take every situation, including death itself, in stride. So, the sure way to address fear of the afterlife is to live the present life compassionately and wisely which, by the way, also helps us have a happy and meaningful life in the present.

Complete Article HERE!

Many Americans say they want to die at home.

It’s not always easy to make that happen.

By Haider J. Warraich

Roger Kellison had Parkinson’s disease that was quickly progressing. He was a private man who eventually moved into his daughter’s house when he was unable to take care of himself.

“He had not come to our house to live,” Daniel Wallace, his son-in-law, told me. “He had come to our house to die. The last thing he wanted to do was die at a hospital.”

Roger Kellison was part of a striking trend: For the first time since the early part of the 20th century, more Americans are dying at home than in the hospital or a nursing home. This finding, included in a recent study by me and co-author Sarah Cross, is encouraging because the vast majority of Americans say they prefer to die at home. So this reflects that many more people are being able to achieve that goal.

But as more people die at home, it also means that much more responsibility falls on the shoulders of patients and their caregivers. Caregiver burden is a growing problem in America. As a doctor tending patients with heart failure, I am keenly aware of how hard managing care can be for both patients and family members.

Taking care of an ailing loved one can be exhausting physically and emotionally, and frequently caregivers lose sight of themselves. My study co-author used to work as a social worker and has seen many families struggle with managing a loved one at home. “Caregivers need to prioritize their own care,” she told me. “It isn’t selfish to take breaks, make time with friends, ask for help, look into respite options.”

After Kellison moved in with his daughter, he stayed mostly in the upstairs guest room, and for the last five months rarely, if ever, came downstairs. That physical separation was important for everyone.

“It was helpful that we delineated the house and our lives. We still went out and we still had people over,” Daniel Wallace said. “Sometimes he was part of that and sometimes he wasn’t.”

Making shared living space work is just one issue. If dying at home is important to someone, that person and their caregivers should think about — and prepare for in advance, if possible — other factors:

Perhaps most importantly, the person nearing the end needs to make clear that they want to die at home. Family, friends and medical teams need to know that. Physicians and nurses will frequently ask patients how they would like their end to be, particularly what types of intensive treatments they might or might not want. They rarely ask people where they would like to die, however.

Once at home, there are certain physical considerations worth noting: Many people have strong feelings about where in the house they would like to spend their last days — in a dark, quiet room, or looking out a window, or away from too much hubbub. Nearness to a bathroom is key. Sometimes, light remodeling, such as installing handrails in bathrooms or ramps, is helpful.

A person at the end of life will probably have feelings about who they want to spend time with — or who they don’t want — so it is important to discuss in advance who will provide caregiving, along with who might provide occasional backup for regular caregivers.

There are often community resources available as well, such as end-of-life doulas trained to care for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of a dying person. Adaire Petrichor is one such doula. She said she “helps with rituals, ceremonies, legacy work and advice on nonmedical comfort care.”

Online resources are available through such organizations as Compassion & Choices. The Conversation Project can provide guidance for patients and their loved ones about what to expect in the final days.

Perhaps the most critical resource available for those wanting to die at home is hospice care. Hospice is covered by Medicare (and most other insurance) for patients with an expected life expectancy of less than six months. It is designed to help caregivers take care of a dying loved one at home with 24-hour call-in numbers to answer urgent questions, visits from hospice nurses, social workers and other staff. But home hospice does not provide full hands-on service, and caregivers still carry the bulk of the responsibility. While in many cases the care of the patient can be tougher than loved ones expect, most people find hospice guidance and support invaluable.

Wallace said hospice was key for taking care of his wife’s father after he moved in with them to die.

“Hospice was a way to bring a quality of life that he didn’t have before, because he couldn’t take care of himself and we couldn’t take care of him without hospice,” Wallace said. “If you need a wheelchair, they have that. If you need Haldol [an antipsychotic drug to treat end-stage delirium and agitation], morphine, they have it, and you can have it the next day.”

While the vast majority of hospice services are delivered at home, hospice care can also be provided in nursing facilities for dying patients who require more intensive medical care or don’t have other social supports.

Hospice is the primary reason more Americans are able to die at home today. Yet, only half of Americans who die receive hospice help. One reason may be that some people don’t ask for it because they think it is sending a depressing message to their ailing loved one or admitting what they may not want to acknowledge — that the person is in their last days.

“The obvious misconception is that it’s a death sentence,” Wallace said. But “it really is a quality-of-life sentence.”

Outside remote regions, most areas have multiple hospice agencies from which to choose.

Agencies can differ in how often nurses visit, what they might offer in crises and what equipment they provide, including hospital bed, oxygen tanks, wheelchairs. It is worth having a discussion about the support they’ll provide and other options before committing to a particular hospice provider.

With advances in public health, medicine and longevity, people now live longer with disabilities. Death is not just the terminal event in our mortal lives, but the final word of a story that can often take years to unfold.

Intermixed with periods of relative stability can be moments of terror as someone hits their final days. Physicians and other health-care providers need to prepare patients and families for these health shocks, such as worsening breathing for a patient with heart or lung disease or a pain crisis for someone with cancer.

Calling 911 when an end-of-life crisis hits initiates a cascade that can often lead to the hospital. This might be necessary if a patient has symptoms that caregivers at home feel unable to manage. For that reason, Cross said, “I recommend not making promises to a loved one such as ‘I promise I’ll always take care of you at home.’ When it becomes too much to manage at home, I’ve seen many caregivers racked with guilt for having ‘broken a promise.’ ”

Some endings can take a much more erratic course, common for those with heart or lung disease. This might be one reason our study showed that patients with cancer are more likely to be able to die at home than those with heart or lung disease.

One morning, a year after his father-in-law had moved in, Wallace went upstairs to check on him and unexpectedly found he had died.

“He did not present himself as dying when it happened,” he said. “We weren’t on death watch or anything like that.”

Some caregivers I have talked to feel uncomfortable with the idea of their loved one dying at home. Even though death has occurred at home for eons, the 20th century interrupted that historical legacy, and for many, it is a novel concept.

But for many, fulfilling a loved one’s wish to die at home provides a fitting and natural end to the story of that person’s life.

When I asked Wallace whether he viewed his house differently after his father-in-law died in it, he said: “It deepens my experience of being alive, to be in a house where someone has died. It’s a remarkable thing.”

Complete Article HERE!