The impossible case of assisted death for people with dementia

Is it too much to ask people to follow through on previously expressed wishes for assisted death? An expert report suggests it may well be.

Dying with Dignity Canada’s CEO Shanaaz Gokool (centre) sits with Barb Brzezici (right), an assisted dying advocate whose mother died after a long battle with dementia, in Toronto, April 14, 2016.

When Canada legalized medically assisted death in 2016, the legislation excluded a trio of particularly difficult circumstances, committing to studying them in detail over the following two years. Those reports—on advance requests, mature minors and cases where a mental disorder is the sole diagnosis—were authored by three panels of eminent experts from a variety of disciplines, and in spite of the resolutely neutral and delicate language in the documents, they make for deeply compelling reading.

Of the three complex circumstances, it is advance requests—which would allow someone to set out terms for their medically assisted death, to be acted on at a future point when they no longer have decision-making capacity because of dementia, for example—that have drawn the greatest interest and agitation for change.

The working groups behind the reports were not asked for recommendations, but rather to provide detailed information on how other countries have grappled with these issues, what a modified Canadian law would need to take into account and how fields like ethics, philosophy, health care and sociology might help us puzzle through these issues.

And while they explicitly take no position on what the government should do, a close reading of the evidence the expert panel gathered makes it virtually impossible to imagine that advance requests for Canadians could exist and be acted upon.

That is not because the will isn’t there; many people with dementia or other illnesses that will eventually consume their cognitive capacity profoundly desire some sense of deliverance and control of their ending, for reasons that are easy to understand.

It is not because requiring help with every task of daily living, or being unable to communicate one’s thoughts or conjure up the names of loved ones is not a real form of suffering; for many people, that is just as intolerable as the spectre of a physically painful death.

And putting advance requests into practice doesn’t seem prohibitive because people who want them would be unsure about where to draw their line; indeed, that threshold is glaringly obvious for those to whom it matters most, and robust documentation and communication with health care providers and family members could provide much-needed clarity.

Rather, the reason it seems virtually impossible that Canada could have—and, crucially, use—advance requests is because it is simply too heavy a burden for those tasked with deciding when to follow through on the previously expressed wishes of the person before them, once that person can no longer meaningfully speak up for themselves.

“Evidence from international perspectives suggests there may be marked differences between stated opinion on hypothetical scenarios and actual practice,” the report notes. In other words, while people generally understand why others want advance requests and broadly support their availability, almost no one can bring themselves to act on them.

“It’s to be expected that these will be heavy decisions to be made, and I’m not sure that we would want them to be light, either,” says Jennifer Gibson, chair of the working group that examined advance requests for medical assistance in dying (MAID), and director of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics.

Gibson’s group and the two other panels that examined MAID for mature minors and for people with a mental illness were chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps and convened by the Council of Canadian Academies, a non-profit organization that “supports independent, science-based, authoritative expert assessments to inform public policy development.”

What is striking in reading the report on advance requests is how profound and deeply human it is, and how quickly the debate becomes almost dizzyingly existential—much more so even than the issue of assisted death in general. “There’s this human experience that we’re all sharing. We’re all in that together—that we are mortal, that we will die, that we will lose loved ones in our lifetime,” Gibson says. “That unavoidable vulnerability sort of encapsulates a lot of these policy and clinical and legal discussions that are unfolding.”

The report delves into concepts like the meaning of personal autonomy; how we care for those we love by shouldering the responsibility of making decisions when they no longer can; the concept of suffering and who defines it; how we weigh the interests of the patient against what their doctor and family are asked to handle; and which safeguards might help reassure those gathered at the bedside who have to make a decision.

“We can think about it as burden, but it’s not just about burden—it’s also about care….there is no question that burden is part of what comes with uncertainty. These are excruciating decisions that someone has to make on behalf of someone who is no longer decisionally capable,” says Benjamin Berger, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and a member of the working group. “But a way of thinking about the burden is also, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’”

And a deeply conceptual sense of the self is central to the report: if in the present, you decide on and record a series of conditions under which you would no longer want to be alive, and you later become incapacitated, are your present and future selves the same person given how profoundly you’ve changed? If, once you are incapacitated, you appear perfectly content or even outright resistant to the MAID procedure you once requested, which version of you and which set of wishes and desires takes precedence, and why?

“Under what conditions might we expect that somebody would so radically lose those core compass points, if they lost capacity to make certain types of decisions, that they would become an entirely new person?” Gibson asks. “It is an existential question.”

And the report puzzles at length over this: can you really know from your present vantage point what your future self will want, how you might suffer or find joy in whatever your life looks like over the next horizon?

Research demonstrates that we are not very good at estimating what our quality of life would be if we fell ill or had some form of disability. This phenomenon, known as “the disability paradox,” is “pervasive,” the report notes. “The underestimation of quality of life by able-bodied or healthy people, rather than its overestimation by those living with a disability or chronic illness, drives the disability paradox,” the expert panel notes.

But again, in the debate over advance requests, this circles back to a deep concept of self: even if you are completely content once you are incapacitated, how much does that matter if your past, competent self loathed the notion of spending years in a long-term care facility needing help with every daily activity?

“Simply pointing to the idea that autonomy is respected and autonomy is important fails to wholly solve the most difficult issues in this field,” says Berger. “The question everybody is trying to ask is, understanding that autonomy is a core issue, what is the right method of ensuring that we respect autonomy?”

But for all of these sprawling legal, philosophical and ethical conundrums, it is when the report explores the experience of other jurisdictions with more experience practicing MAID or more liberal laws than Canada’s that the true difficulty in putting advance requests into practice for people with dementia becomes obvious.

Just four countries—Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands—allow advance requests for euthanasia in some form. However, “nearly all” of the information we have about advance requests in practice comes from the Netherlands, the report notes, because of “lack of implementation experience” in Colombia and Luxembourg, and very little detailed data available from Belgium.

The 2002 Dutch law that formally permitted the practice of euthanasia that had been going on for decades allowed for written advance requests for anyone aged 16 and older, in which they must clearly lay out what they consider unbearable suffering and when they would want euthanasia performed. Those would apply when people could no longer express their wishes and would have “the same status as an oral request made by a person with capacity,” the expert panel reports.

But while the annual reports from RTE, the regional review committees that govern euthanasia in the Netherlands, do not report the number of deaths due to advance requests, they do show that between 2002 and 2017, “all or most” of the patients who received euthanasia due to suffering from dementia were in the early stages of the disease and still had capacity to consent.

A study of 434 Dutch physicians between 2007 and 2008 found that while 110 had treated a patient with dementia who had an advance request, only three doctors had performed euthanasia in such a case (one doctor helped three people to die); all five of those patients too were “deemed competent and able to communicate their wishes.” The paper concluded that because doctors could not communicate with the patients otherwise, “Advance directives for euthanasia are never adhered to in the Netherlands in the case of people with advanced dementia, and their role in advance care planning and end-of-life care of people with advanced dementia is limited.”

Indeed, in 2017, a group of more than 460 Dutch geriatricians, psychiatrists and euthanasia specialists co-signed a public statement committing to never “provide a deadly injection to a person with advanced dementia on the basis of an advance request.”

And while family members of people with dementia support the idea of MAID if their loved one had an advance request, when it comes to acting on that, the majority—63 per cent in one study and 73 per cent in another—asked a doctor not to follow the request and actually provide euthanasia, but instead to simply forego life-sustaining treatment. “Some of the reasons given by relatives were that they were not ready for euthanasia, they did not feel the patient was suffering, and they could not ask for euthanasia when their loved one still had enjoyable moments,” the report explains.

Other Dutch studies show distinct contours in opinions on advance requests in cases of advanced dementia; the general public and family members of people with dementia view it more permissively than nurses and doctors, and doctors are most restrictive of all. “The authors of these studies hypothesized that this could be due to the different responsibilities of each group,” the working group wrote. “Physicians actually have to carry out a patient’s request, and when a patient cannot consent, this act comes with a heavy emotional burden.”

Here in Canada, the federal government has said it has no plans to alter the law to permit advance requests, even in the face of intense interest and pressure around the issue in a particular context a few months ago. In November, Audrey Parker, a vivacious Halifax woman with Stage 4 breast cancer, died by MAID two months earlier than she wanted to, because she feared cancer’s incursion into her brain might render her unable to provide final consent for the procedure if she waited. Parker spent her final months as the highly visible and compelling face of people like her, who are approved for MAID but forced to seek it earlier than they want to—or reduce badly needed pain medications—for fear they will lose the lucidity required to consent.

When it comes to concerns about determining when a patient with an advance request is ready for MAID, how clear their conditions are and whether they may have changed their mind if they can no longer communicate, the report suggest that cases like Parker’s would be the simplest and least controversial in which to permit advance requests. “These issues would likely not arise if a person wrote a request after they were already approved for MAID,” the working group notes. “In this case, they would be able to confirm their current desire for MAID themselves, and may even choose a date for the procedure.”

But when it comes to dementia—the condition which seems to inspire the strongest public desire for advance requests, and for which the disease trajectory is longer and more uncertain—the situation is much more difficult.

It is rarely useful to frame a public policy debate in terms of factions of winners and losers. But with the notion of advance requests for people with dementia, it is difficult to avoid the sense that in order for one group to get what it very understandably wants—a sense of control and escape from an existence that is at least as intolerable to some people as physical suffering—another group must shoulder a different sort of crushing burden—namely, the medical practitioners tasked with actually performing MAID and the family members or substitute decision makers who would have some role in sanctioning the procedure based on their loved one’s recorded wishes.

But Gibson argues that the solution to a heavy burden is not to make it light, but rather to ask what supports and measures would be required to bear it if such a thing were available in Canada. “And some members of the panel were really doubtful that anything would be sufficient to bridge those uncertainties, whereas others on the panel said, ‘I think we’ve got some experience with this, I think we could,’” she says. “There’s not going to be some external adjudicator to tell us we got it right.”

And while there is something distinctly fraught in decisions about MAID, she points out that families all over the country contend every day with life-and-death medical treatment decisions behalf of the people they love.

“It’s part of the ways in which we express love and caring for our loved ones, is we care for them even when they’re unable to care for themselves,” Gibson says. “We ought not to be surprised that these decisions are burdensome. And at the same time, they’re burdensome precisely because of these human connections that we have.”

The immense weight of these choices, then, is the price of admission for the bonds we share, and for the meaning we assign to life itself.

Complete Article HERE!

A Graceful Exit: Taking Charge at the End of Life

How can we break the silence about what happens when we’re dying?

By

I was standing in my cubicle, a 24-year-old fact-checker envisioning a publishing career of glamor and greatness, suddenly shaking as I read the document my mother had mailed. It detailed her wish that I promise never to keep her or my father alive with artificial respirators, IV-drip nourishment, or anything else she deemed “extreme.”

I was horrified, and slightly angry. My mom was a 54-year-old literature professor who’d spent the 1970s eating whole grains and downing vitamins. She was healthier than anyone I knew. Why get so dramatic now? It seemed ghoulish, not to mention premature. But I scrawled my signature at the bottom of the page and shoved it into an envelope, my mother’s voice in my head, prodding me along.

As with the whole wheat and vitamins, my mother—back in 1990—was onto something long before it became conventional wisdom. But these days, Americans’ approach to aging and death is rapidly evolving, pushed both by the numbers and the grim reality behind them: In 40 years, 19 million Americans will be over 85, all at high risk of losing the ability to care for themselves or dwindling away because of organ failure, dementia, or chronic illness. (The days of a sudden fatal heart attack are fading; by 2008, the death rate from coronary heart disease was down 72 percent from what it was in 1950.)

So while many seniors now live vigorous lives well into their 80s, no one gets a free pass. Eating right and exercising may merely forestall an inevitable and ruinously expensive decline. By 2050, the cost of dementia care alone is projected to total more than $1 trillion.

My mom’s decision to face her end came not from any of these facts, but from the nightmare of watching her own mother’s angry decline in a New York nursing home. “You’re all a bunch of rotten apples,” Grandma growled at visitors, the words erupting from her otherwise mute lips. And there she sat for three years, waiting to die. “Why can’t you just get me some pills so I can go?” she would sometimes wail.

The slide toward death was only slightly less awful for my father’s mother. Grandma Ada would greet me with a dazed smile—though it was impossible to know whether she recognized the person standing in front of her wheelchair—before thrashing with involuntary spasms. An aide would come to restrain her, and then my dad and I would leave.

This cannot be right. This cannot be what we want for our parents—or ourselves.

In denial

Despite our myriad technological advances, the final stages of life in America still exist as a twilight purgatory where too many people simply suffer and wait, having lost all power to have any effect on the world or their place in it. No wonder we’re loathe to confront this. The Patient Self-Determination Act, passed in 1990, guarantees us the right to take some control over our final days by creating advance directives like the one my mother made me sign, yet fewer than 50 percent of patients have done so. This amazes me.

“We have a death taboo in our country,” says Barbara Coombs Lee, whose advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, pushed Washington and Oregon to pass laws allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending medication for the terminally ill. “Americans act as if death is optional. It’s all tied into a romance with technology, against accepting ourselves as mortal.”

For proof of this, consider that among venture capitalists the cutting edge is no longer computers, but life-extending technologies. Peter Thiel, the 45-year-old who started PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, has thrown in with a $3.5 million bet on the famed anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey. And Thiel is no outlier. As of 2010, about 400 companies were working to reverse human aging.

Talking about death

The reason for this chronic avoidance of aging and death is not simply that American culture equals youth culture. It’s that we grow up trained to believe in self-determination—which is precisely what’s lost with our current approach to the process of dying. But what if every time you saw your doctor for a checkup, you’d have to answer a few basic questions about your wishes for the end of life? What if planning for those days became customary—a discussion of personal preferences—instead of paralyzing?

Dr. Peter Saul, a physician in Australia, endeavored to test this approach by interviewing hundreds of dying patients at Newcastle Hospital in Melbourne about the way they’d like to handle their lead-up to death—and how they felt discussing it. He was startled to find that 98 percent said they loved being asked. They appreciated the chance to think out loud on the subject. They thought it should be standard practice.

“Most people don’t want to be dead, but I think most people want to have some control over how their dying process proceeds,” Saul says in his widely viewed TED lecture “Let’s Talk About Dying.”

Nevertheless, when his study was complete, Newcastle went back to business as usual, studiously ignoring the elephant in the room, acting as if these patients would eventually stand up and walk out, whistling. “The cultural issue had reasserted itself,” Saul says drily.

Slow medicine

It’s hardly surprising that medical personnel would drive this reexamination of our final days. Coombs Lee, who spent 25 years as a nurse and physician’s assistant, considers her current advocacy work a form of atonement for the misery she visited on terminal patients in the past—forcing IV tubes into collapsed veins, cracking open ribs for heart resuscitation.

“I had one elderly patient who I resuscitated in the I.C.U., and he was livid,” she says. “He shook his fist at me, ‘Barbara, don’t you ever do that again!’ We made a deal that the next time it happened we would just keep him comfortable and let him go, and that’s what we did.”

It bears pointing out, however, that many doctors dislike discussing the ultimate question—whether patients should be allowed to choose their moment of death by legally obtaining life-ending medication. Several have told me that the debate over this overshadows more important conversations about how to give meaning to what remains of life. In Europe, the term of art is euthanasia—the practice of injecting patients with life-ending drugs—which remains illegal in the United States. But whatever the method, many physicians would prefer to avoid the entire topic.

“I don’t think euthanasia matters,” Saul says. “I think it’s a sideshow.”

While arguments flare around this, Dennis McCullough, a geriatrician in New Hampshire, has noticed a quieter answer taking shape among his own patients. Many are themselves retired doctors and nurses, and they have taken charge of their last days by carefully mulling the realities of aggressive medical intervention. Rather than grasping at every possible procedure to stave off the inevitable, they focus instead on accepting it. In place of scheduling never-ending doctor’s visits, they concentrate on connecting with others.

McCullough has termed their philosophy “slow medicine,” and his book about it, My Mother, Your Mother, is starting to attract attention around the world.

“If you go to a doctor to get a recommendation for having some procedure, that’s probably what’s going to happen. Doctors are driven by revenue,” he said in an interview. “But many of the things that we can do to older people don’t yield the results we’ve promised—medicine can’t fix everything. ‘Slow medicine’ is being more thoughtful about that and staying away from decisions based on fear.”

This attitude is gaining traction. In November, several hundred physicians plan to gather in Italy to discuss slow medicine (a name lifted from the similarly anti-tech slow food movement), and McCullough’s book is being translated into Korean and Japanese.

“What’s the last gift you’re going to give your family? In a sense, it’s knowing how to die,” he says. “Staying alive is not necessarily the goal.”

Death with dignity

I consider my mother-in-law, a practicing Catholic and right-leaning political moderate, a barometer for this slowly shifting national consciousness. She is in her mid-60s and healthy, but has already written directives specifying that Bach be played at her bedside and perfume scent the air, if her health deteriorates to the point where she cannot say so herself.

Personally, I’m relieved. Unlike my 24-year-old self, I now find it comforting to plan these things, rather than living in fear of them. But I would still be mired in denial were it not for former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, whom I wrote about in 2008 when he was pushing for a Death with Dignity law and I was a newspaper reporter.

Shaking with Parkinson’s disease, he tried to spark conversation about legalizing physician-assisted aid-in-dying while attending a luncheon in downtown Seattle with a small circle of business friends: “I have a real tough time understanding why people like us, who’ve made tough decisions all their lives—buying, selling, hiring—do not have the right to make such a fundamental decision as this,” Gardner said, referencing his wish to take life-ending medication when his illness becomes unbearable, to gather his family and die when he chooses.

The men sipped their soup. They did not approve. They did not even want to discuss it. Yet that stony opposition—which mirrors the position of the Catholic church, groups representing the disabled, and hospice workers dedicated to maintaining “studied neutrality”—has, ironically, begun to nudge talk of death into the open.

Gardner, to my mind, had articulated the central concern: Wherever you come down on end-of-life decisions, the question is one of control—and who is going to have it over our bodies at the last moments.

Thus far, only Washington and Oregon have passed Death with Dignity laws, though a voter initiative is scheduled for the November election in Massachusetts. In Montana, the courts have ruled that physicians who prescribe life-ending medication for the terminally ill are not subject to homicide statutes; in New Mexico, two doctors have filed a suit challenging prohibitions against “assisting suicide.” And in Hawaii, four doctors willing to prescribe life-ending medication have geared up for a similar fight.

Yet after 15 years of legalized aid-in-dying in Oregon, the biggest news is how seldom people actually invoke this right. Since 1997, fewer than 600 terminal patients have swallowed doctor-prescribed drugs hastening their ends, though 935 had prescriptions written. Did 335 people change their minds at the last minute? Decide in their final days to cling to life as long as possible?

If so, that might be the best thing to come out of Compassion & Choices’ campaign: a peace of mind that allows us to soldier on, knowing we can control the manner of our death, even if we never choose to exercise that power.

My own immediate family ranges in age from 3 to 84, and I envision a dinner in the not-too-distant future when we will gather, talk about how to make my parents’ final journey as meaningful as all that has come before, and raise a glass to the next stage. Maybe at Thanksgiving.

Complete Article HERE!

‘Death doulas’ assist people before and after death

Death doula Christy Marek talks with Mark Quinlan at Our Lady of Peace in St. Paul, Minn. on Friday, May 10, 2019. They discussed the specifics of funeral planning and the nuances of the end of life. She has followed him from the hospital to a transitional care unit, and now to the hospice.

By BOB SHAW

In the dimly lit room, Mark Quinlan struggles to be heard.

His voice box has been silenced by his thyroid cancer. He tries to whisper, but the hum of his oxygen machine drowns out the sound. The voice of the bone-thin 67-year-old barely carries to the edge of his hospice bed.

But Christy Marek is listening.

Marek, an end-of-life assistant called a death doula, leans forward to catch every word. She asks him about funerals, the afterlife and memories of happier times.

“Do you want last rites?” she asks.

The whisper: “I suppose.”

She has been with him for months, in a hospital, transitional care unit and a hospice. Every step of the way, she has guided him through a dark and scary wilderness.

In many cases, death doulas are redefining how people approach death. They are breaking away from traditional generic funerals, and pioneering approaches to grieving, memory and death.

“Death is being reimagined at this moment,” said Anne Murphy, owner of the death-consultation business A Thousand Hands.

In the past, doulas were women working as midwives to help the process of birth. “Death doula” is a term for people who help with the other end of life. They also call themselves celebrants or soul midwives.

“They all do the same thing — companioning for people dying,” said Jane Whitlock, a St. Paul death doula.

The National Doulagivers Institute reports that its training has quadrupled in two years. President Suzanne O’Brien said she has now trained 402 certified doulas in a six-month course. The cost is $997, Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported.

“I just got back from a month of training in Thailand,” O’Brien said in April. “This is needed around the world.”

Doulas-to-be are drawn to a job that that pays up to $100 an hour in Minnesota. The trainers are proliferating, with names like Doulagivers, Lifespan Doulas, Soul Passages and the National End of Life Doula Alliance.

The traveling doula schools are arriving in Minnesota.

One session starting May 31 offers a three-day program by the International End of Life Doula Association for $750. Or you could get training from the Conscious Dying Institute, which is offering three-day classes starting June 22 and September 26, for $2,995 and $1,895, respectively.

The inconsistency makes some uncomfortable.

“I look at the programs where you get certified after a weekend. It is not doing the people you work with justice,” Marek said.

“It is frankly a little bit messy.”

Doulas sometimes overlap the services of a hospice — causing some friction.

“Hospices frankly do not know what to do with the end-of-life doula role,” Marek said.

Susan Marschalk, director of the Minnesota Network of Hospice and Palliative Care, said they do not compete but must learn to work together.

“Doulas are newer, and there is some trepidation about them,” Marschalk said. She said hospices provide medical care and emotional support for dying people.

Doulas are flexible, hired by the hour. They can be employed before or after the dying process begins, helping with funerals and commemorations.

The training for death doulas is sketchy.

It’s a new vocation, with no regulations or standards. With no training whatsoever, anyone can start working as a death doula.

Sometimes they are hired months before a death, and work for months afterward. Some are called at the last minute and may help only in a person’s final hours.

“This is so new. We are all finding our way,” said Marek, of Lakeville, owner of Tending Life at the Threshold.

Being a doula is not a full-time career — yet.

“Right now there are no full-time death doulas,” said doula Whitlock. But she predicts that as baby boomers age, the demand will increase along with the number of deaths.

Doulas seeking full-time work sometimes branch out into related areas — paperwork, aging in place, consulting, or doula services for pets.

“Dying people want to put things in order,” she said. She helped a woman arrange for her ashes to be dropped into the Mississippi River from a pedestrian bridge.

Death doulas encourage doing whatever is meaningful — which can often mean breaking the rules.

For example, one dying man recently requested a wedding and an end-of-life celebration — in the same service. He was engaged, said doula Murphy, and saw the dual-purpose ceremony as meaningful.

What was meaningful at Susan Showalter’s funeral was utterly original.

Showalter, 71, of St. Paul, died in December of diabetes complications. End-of-life adviser Murphy suggested a home vigil, displaying the body for visitors to see.

About 175 mourners were served white wine and Doritos — Showalter’s happy-hour treat.

Respecting an ancient ceremony, they washed the body with washcloths and pans of water. They anointed her with oil, dabbing it on her face and hands.

The group spontaneously sprinkled rose petals to make a pathway between the body and the funeral-home van.

Once the body was gone, they shaped the petals on a table into an outline of her body. Where her feet had been, someone placed hockey socks — which she wore when her feet were cold.

The personal touches enriched the process, said her husband, David.

“This allowed us to be in charge,” he said. “We were participants, not just observers.”

“I swear at least 20 people thanked me for such a wonderful way to say goodbye.”

At other times, death doulas help celebrate the lives of the deceased — before and after they die.

On May 10, Marek hovered at the bedside of cancer victim Quinlan in Our Lady of Peace hospice in St. Paul.

She reminded him of the impact he had on his students, from 40 years of teaching at Centennial High School in Circle Pines.

One of them — Chris Roskowinski — flew from his home in Sherman Oaks, California, when he learned that Quinlan was dying.

The night before, he was taken to the opening-night play at the high school, which he had helped direct until the cancer left him incapacitated. The cast and the audience honored Quinlan — which made the occasion both happy and sad.

“Tell me, did that make it easier for you?” Marek asked. “Harder?”

After a pause, a raspy whisper rose from the bed: “Easier.” The word seemed to hang in the air.

At his bedside, Roskowinski could barely hear Quinlan speak, but nodded appreciatively.

“She can be his voice,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

Why won’t we talk about death?

By

Standing under the canopy, hiding from the scorching sun, I listened to stories of my grandfather. Meanwhile, my grandmother stared aimlessly ahead, her dementia shielding her from her husband’s body — neatly tucked inside a wooden box. I had met my family in San Diego to mourn my grandfather’s death, but confronted with my grandmother’s foggy-eyed gaze, I found myself wondering what the end of her life would look like.

As a family medicine doctor, I knew what conversation was needed. I also knew the challenges of initiating such conversations. The week before, I had seen a 95-year-old gentleman have his ribs crushed and crumpled like papier-mâché during CPR because there was no documentation indicating he wanted anything differently. I remember sitting anxiously the month prior with a family trying to decide whether to “pull the plug” on their comatose father/husband, uncertain of his wishes, having never had that conversation.

These conversations are hard, but they are immensely important. Regardless of how  healthfully we live or how much medical care we receive, we will all die. Yet, understanding this intellectually is vastly different from truly feeling it; raw confrontation with our own mortality is frightening. Many of us live in denial about death — shying away from discussing it — and many medical professionals act as if death is a problem to be solved, rather than a process to be lived. Consequently, while 92% of people believe talking with their loved ones about end-of-life care is important, only 32% of people do so. Similarly, while 97% of people say it’s important to put their wishes in writing, only 37% of people have such written documentation.

We mustn’t succumb to this cultural fear of death. When we confront our end-of-life processes through humble inquiry and acknowledge our own mortality, we are able to articulate what we want to avoid. In doing so, we are not harbingers of misfortune, but rather active participants in care that helps ensure we live and die in a manner consistent with our values and priorities. While engaging in this emotional discomfort can be daunting, the avoidance of such conversation is far worse.

Too often, I find critically ill, hospitalized patients who have not yet considered how they want to live when their health is severely compromised. This not only contributes to excessive health-care expenditures (25% of all Medicare costs are from the last year of life), but it creates enormous familial stress when life-threatening decisions — such as withdrawing life-support — are unexpectedly thrust upon family members. Furthermore, ignoring our inevitable futures prevents us from receiving care we want — 70% of patients report wanting to die at home but less than half do so.

We must find the courage to discuss these issues with our doctors, our parents and our children. Fortunately, there are examples throughout the country paving a way forward.

“Death Cafes” are now spread throughout the country, where folks come together to talk about end-of-life care. Card games, such as “Hello,” offer creative opportunities for friends and family to discuss hopes and fears surrounding death. To some, this may sound outlandish, but when such tactics have been embraced, marked change has occurred, such as in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where similar efforts have led to 96% of people holding advance health care directives.

Bringing such conversations to the forefront of our collective consciousness, as was done for my grandfather, is possible … if we so choose. Ask your primary care provider at your next appointment to offer insight on advance care planning. Explore resources like Stanford’s Letter Project and The Conversation Project, which aim to help us articulate our health-care priorities and personal legacy.

What greater gift can we give our parents than to humbly inquire about what is most important to them as they age, so we can help facilitate their health-care goals? In so doing, not only might we reduce familial stress, we may liberate our families and ourselves to fully live.

Complete Article HERE!

My Odd Job: I help people live a good life, up until their last breath

By Anna Lyons

Most people know what a birth doula is, but not many have heard of an end of life doula.

Sometimes we’re called death doulas, death midwives, end of life companions or soul midwives. While a birth doula provides support and guidance to mothers at the start of life, an end of life doula provides practical and emotional support at life’s end.

Often I’m called in at diagnosis when there’s an element of disbelief and panic but sometimes it’s at the last minute when someone is actively dying. Their needs can change, too – someone who doesn’t require much support in the beginning can need a lot more assistance as their illness progresses.

No two days are ever the same. One day I might be going to hospital appointments with someone I’m working with or advocating on their behalf with their medical team. Another day I might be helping children say goodbye to their mum or dad. Some days I’ll be attending funerals.

There’s a very practical side to my job. I might help someone write an Advance Directive, a will or a do not resuscitate order (DNR), and help anyone thinking about appointing a lasting power of attorney.

Disbelief often accompanies a life-limiting diagnosis. Often, in the stiflingly small consultant’s office, any words spoken after a devastating prognosis fall onto ears that are powerless to hear any more. I take extensive notes in consultants’ appointments because I know my clients will be too distressed to process it all.

One client I worked with had an amazing medical team, an incredibly supportive and present family and a big group of friends.

She contacted me because she needed someone to offload to without making her amazing support network feel inadequate or unappreciated. She wanted someone she didn’t feel she had to protect from the harsh realities of her illness and her feelings about it.

They never knew she’d sought extra help. I only found out she’d died from an online obituary.

Yet some people don’t have family and friends who can help them, or who can’t take time off from jobs that pay the bills.

Illness can also drive our friends and family away. These losses can be isolating and frightening at a time when you most need company and reassurance.

At 17, I found myself standing at the graveside of one of my nearest and dearest friends. Despite being ill for a long time, we didn’t know that he’d been diagnosed with an incurable cancer.

He knew he was going to die but didn’t feel able to tell us any of us. There was a stark clarity to sitting in that packed congregation knowing he was barely out of their teens. His death shaped my life and his silence made me decide that I wanted to help people at the end of their lives.

When I first meet people we’ll talk about what a good life looks like to them and what they would consider to be intolerable.

They’ll set out boundaries around what they consider will be the limit of their suffering, and as their illness progresses, those boundaries almost always shift.

People have described their illness as being like a huge magnifying glass, augmenting what matters most and sometimes allowing them to let go of things they realise don’t really matter.

Others have described to me the lucidity that can come with a short prognosis, how things taste and look different when you know you’ll only ever get to eat or see them a few more times. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and depression can go hand in hand with being physically unwell.

With some clients it’s more important to acknowledge just how sh*t the situation is. There’s no fix for end of life. There’s no cure. Sometimes all someone needs you to do is acknowledge how unfair what’s happening is. The most fundamental part of my job is listening: to really hear what life is like for someone, to bear witness to their pain, to sit with them in their darkest moments and to be there.

That said, I am always amazed at how people are able to find humour in the darkest of situations.

I once helped a young woman say goodbye to her father. She hadn’t been able to get to see him before he died and I accompanied her to the funeral directors.

She was distraught. She’d told me that he had always been a joker and while his lame jokes drove her to distraction during his life, they would be one of the things she’d miss most.

She started crying so I handed her a box of tissues, which she dropped. She then bent down to get it, stood up too soon and knocked his coffin, rocking him like a dingy on a rough sea. I looked up in concerned horror to find her giggling hysterically. She said he’d have loved the sitcom silliness of the moment and felt they’d shared one last laugh.

That people can smile despite, in spite, of all they are facing, that family and friends can demonstrate and show a love that’s pure and deep, is humbling to bear witness to.

I don’t really believe in the idea of a ‘good death’. Describing death as ‘good’ makes me feel I’m doing a disservice to life, to loss and to grief. My job is about helping people live a good life and that ‘living’ includes dying.

The dying, we all hope, will be as gentle and as painless as possible but it’s the living of a good life right up until your last breath, that what it’s all about.

Talk to your children about life and death, dying and grief – it is as important as talking to our children about sex and relationships. And do it now. It’s so much easier to have those conversations when everyone is well. Every adult should write a will, we should all have an Advance Directive, appoint a lasting power of attorney and sign a DNR.

I have regular supervision and therapy to help me do this job. I take time out, and I would prefer to work with fewer people and do an excellent job than take on too much and buckle under the emotional weight.

Hanging out with my three daughters and walking our silly one-eyed dog helps me keep my emotions in check. Gelato helps a lot too.

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Campaign aims to get people to better prepare for death

Initiative comes as survey suggests talking about dying is still an uncomfortable subject

Bella Vivat, a visitor at The Departure Lounge inside Lewisham shopping centre in London.

By

It comes to us all in the end. But despite the inevitability of death, few of us feel comfortable talking about it and most have made no plans for how we would like our final moments to play out, according to research.

Now, leading experts from the Academy of Medical Sciences are launching a campaign aimed at making death a more acceptable topic of conversation.

Prof Dame Lesley Fallowfield, a cancer psychologist at the University of Sussex, is urging people to draw up death plans, much like they prepare for the birth of a baby.

“We have birth plans where people record what they’d prefer to happen,” she said. “We all know that events sometimes supersede your wishes, but we can think it through and make it the best it can possibly be. Making a death plan shouldn’t be seen as a macabre thing to do.”

Fallowfield said failure to plan and talk about death meant many people do not spend their final weeks and hours as they would have chosen and families are frequently left with regrets.

A poll by the academy, conducted by Ipsos Mori and published this week, found that six in 10 people feel they know little or nothing about the final hours of life, with many people getting information about dying from documentaries or soaps rather than conversations with medical professionals.

One third of the nearly 1,000 people who participated in face-to-face interviews declined to answer questions about death and dying, suggesting that many feel uncomfortable talking about the subject. “Challenging this taboo is at the heart of the academy’s national campaign,” said Prof Sir Robert Lechler, the academy’s president.

To jump-start the conversation, the academy has opened a pop-up installation, The Departure Lounge, at Lewisham shopping centre in south-east London, aimed at engaging people with the topic. Occupying what was previously a mobile phone shop, it features a large pile of suitcases emblazoned with messages and questions about the final journey we all face.

On the first day of its month-long residency, it prompted mixed reactions from shoppers.

Michelle Charlesworth, 35, from Lewisham, said that as a result of her visit she was planning to write down what she would like to happen when she dies. “It takes that responsibility off your loved ones,” she said. “It sounds like a small thing, but I’d want to be in a really nice pair of pyjamas. I’d probably want to be cremated or buried in them too, actually.”

The Departure Lounge has prompted some to make plans for their death.

Bella Vivat, who works in palliative care research at UCL, said visiting had convinced her to draw up an advanced directive, a legal document in which a person specifies what actions should be taken for their health if they are no longer able to make decisions for themselves. “We live our lives as though we’re not going to die,” she said. “I’m going to go away today and do that.”

Bambii Nzinga, 24, an actor and screenwriter, who is working as a host at the installation, said she initially took on the job because she thought it might provide interesting writing material. Then her four-year-old son started asking her about death. “I was so prepared for the birds and the bees conversation,” she said. “But when he asked me if I was going to die, I didn’t know what to say.”

On the spur of the moment she told him she was never going to die, but has since revised her answer. “Children are happy to talk about death, it’s us that put the fear in them,” she said.

Some wandered into the lounge under the impression that a suitcase sale was underway and looked baffled after reading signs such as “everybody’s got to die of something”. “I’m not ready for death,” one unsuspecting shopper exclaimed making a quick exit.

Smaller versions of the lounge will be appearing at 30 other locations across the UK over the summer.

Fallowfield said that while death was normally sad, failing to talk about the inevitable can make the experience more traumatic for both the person who is dying and their relatives afterwards. “It’s quite awful when you see families who’ve never talked about it having these hollow conversations and feigned smiles about a future that’s never going to be realised,” she said. “When you see families who have openly acknowledged death, they often share sad and tearful moments, but also laugh and comfort each other.”

The poll found that people were around as likely to get information about death from documentaries (20%) or films, dramas and soaps (16%) as they are from medical professionals (22%). The distressing or even glamourised portrayals of death in films and television meant that people may be getting a unrealistic picture of what lies ahead.

“In films you often get dying words – someone gasping out things like ‘Please tell Jim I love him’, which sort of makes me laugh,” said Fallowfield. “I’ve never seen that happen.”

Instead, she said, people normally “quietly drift away”. “They start to lose consciousness, their breathing may become laboured,” she said. “It’s really important to hold their hand and continue talking to them. That makes you feel good too. It doesn’t necessarily have to be horribly traumatic.”

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Can Novels Change Our Attitudes About Death?

Searching for death-positive books in a death-phobic culture

By John MacNeill Miller

Not long after they die, even the best novelists start to stink.

Maybe that explains why we have so few great stories about what happens after we die. The novelistic tradition is rich with deathbed scenes and moving explorations of grief, but serious fiction about mortality inevitably stops at death’s door. Remarking this pattern in 1927, E. M. Forster blamed novelists’ hesitation to write about the dead on the dead themselves. “[D]eath is coming,” he admits in his influential treatise Aspects of the Novel, but we cannot write about it in any convincing way because — as the saying goes — dead men tell no tales. “Our final experience, like our first, is conjectural,” he concludes. “We move between two darknesses.”

Forster’s reasoning seems sound enough. If we want to move from a pathologically death-phobic culture to a more well-adjusted one, however, we need to rethink our cultural tradition of giving death the silent treatment. That is the sentiment underlying the death-positive movement, a loose collective of artists, writers, academics, and funeral industry professionals agitating for more open conversations about dying. As the mortician and author Caitlin Doughty explains in her bestselling memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, “A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death.”

At the very minimum, our culture of death denial creates a population unprepared for the inevitability of death, one in which every dying individual burdens family and friends with painful healthcare decisions, legal battles, and property disputes that could have been avoided with a little forethought. At its worst, death denial promotes a youth- and health-obsessed society whose inability to address death fuels overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, and powerlessness in the face of illness and age.

As Doughty — perhaps the most prominent figure of the death-positive movement — admits at the end of her memoir, “Overcoming our fears and wild misconceptions about death will be no small task.” She looks to the medieval spiritual guidebooks known as Ars Moriendi (Latin for “The Art of Dying”) for inspiration. We need to re-teach ourselves how to die, she argues — a process that begins with an open admission of our thoughts, fears, and beliefs about death. Treating death as a hushed affair will only make matters worse. “Let us instead reclaim our mortality,” she concludes, “writing our own Ars Moriendi for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes.”

We need to re-teach ourselves how to die—a process that begins with an open admission of our thoughts, fears, and beliefs about death.

The spate of books on death and dying published in the past two years suggests that many writers have taken Doughty’s words to heart. These works run the gamut from a grisly history of Victorian surgery to a study of American hauntings, and they include the lavishly illustrated essay collection Death: A Graveside Companion and Doughty’s own From Here to Eternity, a comparative analysis of death practices from around the world. For a group interested in the art of dying, however, the death-positive movement is strikingly uninterested in art of the literary variety: in its concentration on turning a spotlight on the facts of death, the death-positive movement has not yet explored the relationship between death and fiction.

If we want to reclaim the good death as part of the good life, we need to consider how we incorporate death in the stories we tell about ourselves. When we tacitly treat death as The End of every individual’s story, we only increase a collective sense of death’s unspeakability. What lies beyond the grave seems unthinkable in part because it remains unimaginable. Yet if Forster is right, it seems we are at an impasse: given the silence of the tomb, how can storytellers represent death as something other than a final stop?

If we want to reclaim the good death as part of the good life, we need to consider how we incorporate death in the stories we tell about ourselves.

Two award-winning attempts at writing the afterlife — one from 1999 and one from 2017 — offer two different approaches to answering the question. Taken together, Being Dead and Lincoln in the Bardo show that it is possible to tell smart, powerful stories that represent death as something other than a stunningly final silence. They also show that the precise forms such stories take have profound implications for the ways we value life, and the ways we understand the place of death within it.

The very title of Jim Crace’s Being Dead promises tantalizing access to that posthumous experience that Forster believed to be off limits. Yet there is a bit of a bait-and-switch here: Crace’s novel leaves little room for speculative adventures into otherworldly existence. Being Dead is a postmortem story in an almost clinical sense. It tells the love story of Joseph and Celice, two young scientists who get married, raise a daughter, and settle into late life together. But if this is love, it is love under the knife: Crace’s scalpel-sharp realism cuts to the heart of desire with a kind of ruthless detachment unmatched since Flaubert.

The result is less the touching portrait of a couple than an autopsy of their relationship — and that is only appropriate, because the novel opens with their murder. Joseph and Celice die of a kind of misplaced nostalgia. They have unnecessarily returned, in late middle age, to the sand dunes where they first conducted research together and gave in to youthful passion. The explicit purpose of their trip is to visit the dunes one last time before the place is destroyed by encroaching development. But the couple’s desire, here and elsewhere, is divided: Celice wants to make peace with the death of a friend that occurred exactly as she and Joseph first fell for each other, while Joseph only wants to reenact their tryst on the dunes.

Joseph’s “plan” is utterly transparent to Celice, who indulges him out of pity rather than affection. Their actual encounter ends in embarrassment; Joseph finishes before it starts. They resolve to try again after lunch but never get that chance. A furious stranger stumbles across the defenseless, naked pair as they sit together, and he bashes their skulls in with a rock.

Because the couple has already died as the story begins, the novel proceeds by alternating backward glances with real-time narration, interspersing Joseph and Cecile’s love story with the lurid details of their bodily decomposition. The result is touching and gruesome by turns, but not necessarily in the ways you would expect: the descriptions of decay offer welcome relief from the cringeworthy details of the awkward, lopsided desires that brought the couple together. The novel seems, in fact, to struggle with its own inevitable slide toward the romanticization of decay. “Do not be fooled,” Crace admonishes his reader early on:

There was no beauty for them in the dunes, no painterly tranquility in death framed by the sky, the ocean and the land, that pious trinity in which their two bodies, supine, prone, were posed as lifeless waxworks of themselves, sweetly unperturbed and ruffled only by the wind. This was an ugly scene. They had been shamed. They were undignified.

Yet Crace lingers almost lovingly over Joseph and Celice’s bodily transformations as they lie exposed among the seagrass. While their love life is painfully prosaic, the passages that describe their undiscovered bodies flirt with a far more idealistic vision of human attachment:

But the rain, the wind, the shooting stars, the maggots and the shame had not succeeded yet in blowing them away or bringing to an end their days of grace. There’d been no thunderclap so far. His hand was touching her. The flesh on flesh. The fingertip across the tendon strings. He still held on. She still was held.

Being Dead manages to recast our bodily afterlives as something not only speakable, but significant. It does so, however, by valorizing the unconscious peace of our material remains, casting that as preferable to the despicable fumblings of actual life. The intimacy of Joseph and Celice is only unproblematic when they have become unfeeling matter, generously supplying the landscape with the nutrients sloughing off their unprotected flesh. If Being Dead achieves an unusually death-positive outlook, it achieves it by becoming decidedly life-negative.

George Saunders’s more recent exploration of experience after death takes a radically different approach. Whereas Being Dead aligns itself with a kind of scientific detachment, Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo proves exuberantly grotesque from the outset. The story opens with the middle-aged Hans Vollman describing his gradual, tender seduction of his young wife. Alas, on the very day she promises to give herself to him, a loose beam falls and crushes his skull. Unable to accept the fact of his permanently unconsummated marriage, Vollman haunts the cemetery where he is buried, joining a number of other lingering spirits who convince themselves they are merely sick and will soon recover.

Saunders does not deal with decomposition in the straightforward way favored by Crace. His dead characters experience a progressive material instability instead, as they undergo bodily embarrassments that range from the familiar to the fantastic. Hans’s earthly fixations, for example, make him appear to other spirits with an oversized and irrepressible erection. He repeatedly bumbles into discussion of his physical shortcomings, from the baldness and lameness that plagued him in life to the mortifying fact that he pooped his pants after death. His fellow revenants suffer similar corporeal distortions: Roger Bevins III, a Whitmanian poet who killed himself in a fit of passion, fights to suppress the shapeshifting, hungry bundles of hands and eyes that sprout from his body in futile attempts to grasp after the experiences he denied himself by taking his own life.

If death positivity means staring unpleasant facts in the face, Being Dead would seem to be a more death-positive novel than Lincoln in the Bardo. Crace treats both the issue of decomposition and the unconsciousness of the dead in frank terms, whereas Saunders passes over putrefaction to depict a world where the dead might yet live — at least temporarily. But reading the texts together suggests that death positivity cannot emerge from objective attention to facts alone. In fact, Lincoln in the Bardo reveals that the fascination with prurient facts that underpins Being Dead emerges from a kind of puritanical fear of our fleshly existence, a fear inseparable from the novel’s reliance on an omniscient narrator.

We have become comfortable with the idea that a story can be told by the all-seeing eye of a disembodied voice. Strictly speaking, however, this supposedly objective “view from nowhere” is an absurd fiction — at least as impractical and unrealistic as any postmortem point of view. The impracticality of objective narration is especially apparent in Being Dead because the novel is so preoccupied with death, the very moment supposed to divide subjective from objective existence.

10 Death-Obsessed Books to Satisfy Your Inner Goth

By viewing the bodily histories of Joseph and Celice from the outside, the narrator of Being Dead does them — and us — a disservice. The novel only pretends to a fearlessly honest account of human bodies, when its perspective is essentially fearful. Rather than acknowledging the embodied experience the author shares with his subject matter, it retreats into the sham detachment of an etherealized narrator, an imaginary voice pretending to possess unearthly objectivity.

The result is an impossibly disembodied account of what bodies are, one that ends up portraying all embodied consciousness as disappointing, limited, and pitiful. Rather than treating death as an inevitable part of a continuous material experience we all share, Being Dead idealizes it in the way it idealizes all objectivity: in Being Dead, death offers a welcome break from the painful awkwardness of embodied consciousness. Saunders, by contrast, dives with rollicking good humor into the oddness of bodies, acknowledging such awkwardness — and embracing bodies all the more for it.

Lincoln in the Bardo has no imaginary narrator watching earthly existence from the outside. The story is told through a series of (mostly dead) characters whose interwoven monologues clumsily strive to explain their current state while avoiding any admission of their own deaths. The result is a world — the Bardo — that seems, at first, sui generis, a marvelous oddity sprung from the mind of one of our foremost storytellers. Soon, however, it acquires an uncanny familiarity.

For all its unworldliness, the community Saunders depicts is very like our own. His novel is a gently satirical portrait of a society founded on an elaborate charade of death denial; the plot turns on the shades’ need to realize the absurdity of the fiction that they can avoid their own deaths. It begins with the introduction of a newcomer — a freshly dead soul who is promptly welcomed with Vollman’s raunchy monologue. But Vollman is suddenly (and hilariously) taken aback to discover that he has just told his tale of penises and poop to a young, innocent, sad-faced boy who turns out to be the president’s son, Willie Lincoln, who has died of typhoid fever in the early days of the Civil War.

The timing of this weirdest of historical fictions cannot be coincidental. As Doughty and others have observed, the American Civil War marks the starting point of the modern death industry. Embalming, once considered a ghastly and unnatural process, became mainstream in the United States when families faced with the logistical problem of transporting bodies intact over long distances — the bodies of soldiers who were dying in unprecedented numbers far from their birthplaces. Embalming solved the problem, but it required a new kind of expertise. Suddenly the preparation of bodies — once an intimate affair, largely the work of women who cleaned and dressed their dead at home — became an invasive professional process. The Civil War thus launched the profession of the funeral director into the mainstream, driving a wedge between Americans and their dead.

Saunders’s novel offers us a glimpse of a more intimate antebellum relation with the dead to remind us of what we lost. It offers a profoundly moving account of an entire community of people awakening to an awareness of their own mortality. The story is simple enough: the denizens of the cemetery welcome young Willie, then watch in confusion as Abraham Lincoln repeatedly returns to his son’s tomb after dark to open it and embrace the body. As they look on, the roving spirits begin to recognize the loathing of their own bodies that lies at the heart of their death denial. The spirits speak in a series of rapid epiphanies about their own self-hatred, triggered by the loving touch Lincoln bestows on his son:

To be touched so lovingly, so fondly, as if one were still —

—roger bevins iii

Healthy.

—hans vollman

As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?

It was cheering. It gave us hope.

—the reverend everly thomas

We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.

—roger bevins iii

The intimate attachment of the dead with the living fills them — and us — with something other than horror. It provokes surprise that gives way to admiration and awe as the dead realize that their shared fate does not deserve the hatred they have wasted on it.

It is an impressive portrait of a world to come. Of course Lincoln in the Bardo is, finally, a fiction — and a deeply unrealistic one at that. Nevertheless, the novel’s fantastical qualities do not make it less useful to the death-positive movement. If anything, its very lack of realism clarifies the important role fiction must play in our collective struggle to reimagine our relationship with death.

Lincoln in the Bardo shows accepting death to be inextricable from accepting the oddness of bodies. In Lincoln’s repeated visits to the cemetery, the spirits discover an individual not only unafraid of bodies but positively in love with one. Lincoln’s conflictedness shows him loving his son as a physical being — even in his diminished, postmortem form — and indulging that love precisely because he knows the body cannot last, that he must finally let it go.

What Vollman, Bevins, and the others come to understand through Lincoln’s example is how to reattach their senses of identity to their bodies. They learn to be generous to themselves as messy material beings, to include both their bodily joys and their bodily fallibility into their essential understanding of what it means to be. When they accept this epiphany they vanish, receding into something beyond our reach. But that disappearance no longer feels like an abrupt rupture of subjective experience, or something at odds with life. Death becomes, instead, a kind of higher accomplishment — a letting-go that most of us are not yet ready to aspire to.

That kind of awed acceptance is finally unavailable to Being Dead. Crace’s novel revels in a species of passionless scientific accuracy whose view is finally less able to understand death, and less able to represent it, precisely because death is such a deeply subjective experience. Death, in other words, only happens to subjects, to embodied beings immersed in material experience. That is precisely the experience that Being Dead, like works of strict nonfiction, refuses to include.

Lincoln in the Bardo reminds us that it makes no sense to aspire to unflinching objective accuracy when we are all flinching, subjective, and messy bodily beings. The attempt to adopt a dispassionate perspective on death is itself an example of our absurd aspiration to inhabit an undying, unearthly worldview. It is at once unhealthy and impossible. Clinical detachment from our shared embodiedness is the most pernicious of fictions.

The attempt to adopt a dispassionate perspective on death is itself an example of our absurd aspiration to inhabit an undying, unearthly worldview. It is at once unhealthy and impossible.

The death-positive movement has already made enormous strides toward making death a subject of public discussion. What we need now, however, is an examination of death as more than just a matter of fact. We need new fictions that understand death as an imaginative challenge — a challenge that cannot be overcome by stricter adherence to objective detachment, the interminable piling of fact on fact. We need innovative modes of storytelling that can disabuse us of this unhelpful obsession with objectivity, stories that help us see physical matter not as an assuredly lifeless, senseless object we all eventually become, but as the very thing that defines and enables our existence — the thing from which life and mind continuously, mysteriously emerges. Only then will we be able to forge a way forward that leaves us unafraid of our shared inhabitation of our fragile, corruptible, beautiful bodies.

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