Judy Chicago is well-aware she’s going to die one day — and she’s coming to terms with it. In her newest body of work, the 80-year-old feminist artist reckons with her own mortality, as well as the untimely death she fears for the planet’s threatened species and ecosystems.
“The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction,” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, consists of nearly 40 works of painted porcelain and glass, plus two large sculptures. It’s divided into three sequential sections: “Stages of Dying,” “Mortality” and “Extinction.” Chicago’s new series is “luminous,” according to exhibition curator Virginia Treanor. “I think it’s going to be a really contemplative experience. People will be moved by it, for sure.”
Here’s a closer look at five of the pieces on display.
Stages of Dying 5/6: Depression
An aged, bald woman cradles her face in her hands in this white porcelain piece, which is part of the “Stages of Dying” section of the exhibition. The figure personifies one of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages can apply both to those who are grieving the loss of someone and to those grappling with their own end. The older woman Chicago depicts is intended to represent an Everywoman, as well as the indiscriminate inevitability of death. “For so much of human history, the male figure has been the archetype of humanity,” says Treanor. “We say, ‘mankind.’ She wanted to shift that paradigm and make an Everywoman rather than an Everyman.”
A woman’s eyes are closed, her head resting on a pillow, hands clasped around a bouquet of lilies. The bronze sculpture is a self-portrait of the artist, who in the “Mortality” section of the show imagines different scenarios in which she might die. “Mortality Relief” pays homage to traditional death masks, which were used from the Middle Ages until the 19th century — before the advent of photography — to preserve someone’s likeness after death. Treanor describes the sculpture as “peaceful and serene.”
In the Shadow of Death
Thirty of the pieces in “The End” — including this one from the “Mortality” section — are kiln-fired paintings on black glass: a laborious process that requires multiple firings. Each time something’s put into the kiln, there’s a risk that it’s going to break, which means that the artist needs to be exacting. “In the Shadow of Death” is engraved with a quote from philosopher Todd May, reading, in part: “To forge our lives under the haunting shadow of death is both our reality and our opportunity,” with an emphasis on the word “opportunity.” It’s Chicago’s way of noting that there’s no need to fear death. “We have this opportunity in life because we know it’s finite,” Treanor says. “It’s going to end at some point.”
How Will I Die? #2
A woman, once again a self-portrait of Chicago, is curled into the fetal position, text wrapped around her body — “Will I leave as I arrived?” — in this kiln-fired painting on black glass. “Linking the experience of birth and death is powerful in a visual way, but also in an existential way,” Treanor says. She particularly lauds Chicago’s use of a wrinkled, aged figure. “This is classic Judy Chicago, and it’s one of the reasons I love her and her work so much,” she says. “She’s constantly pushing the boundaries. Nude women in art are a dime a dozen, right? But very rarely do we see an older nude woman. Very rarely do we see older women at all.”
In “Extinction,” the final section of the exhibit, Chicago turns from pondering individual death to the obliteration of entire ecosystems and species. A gaunt polar bear clings to a melting iceberg in the black-glass painting “Stranded.” Other works depict elephants killed for their tusks and trees flayed of their bark. Capturing that kind of destruction requires extensive research, which Chicago has described as an emotionally draining experience. “It was interesting to hear her speak about these works, and equating the physical exertion that went into them — like multiple [kiln] firings — with the emotional toll it took on her,” Treanor says. “She said it was really gut-wrenching.”
If you go/
Judy Chicago — The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction
National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. nmwa.org .
Dates: Through Jan. 20.
Admission: $10; $8 for seniors and students; free for members and visitors 18 and under.
It’s not quite the peaceful drifting off I’d imagined for my dad.
By Harriet Brown
At age 86, my father had survived both colon cancer and a stroke that left him with aphasia. His mind was sharp, though, and he wasn’t depressed. A crack bridge player with a passion for Italian restaurants, he was popular at his assisted living facility even though he couldn’t speak much. He told me he’d lived a good life and wasn’t afraid of dying, and he didn’t want to go through any more medical trauma. No chemo, no radiation, no surgeries, no treatment.
His advance directive read DNR and DNI — do not resuscitate, do not intubate. No one would break his ribs doing CPR or make bruises bloom along his arms trying to find a vein. As his health-care proxy, I was completely on board. I’d read Sherwin Nuland’s “How We Die,” Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal,” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying.” Comfort would be the priority and any pain would be “managed,” which I assumed meant erased.
Up to 80 percent of Americans die in hospitals or nursing homes, and a third spend at least 10 days in an intensive care unit before they die, many of them comatose or on a ventilator. A week after his sudden diagnosis of widespread metastatic disease, my father was lucky enough to get a bed in our town’s only hospice, a homey facility staffed with attentive and experienced caregivers. The alternative would have been a hospital bed in my living room, so it was a relief to know that my father was in the hands of professionals. They would know what to do.
And they did. The nurses and caregivers were gentle as they repositioned my father in bed, explaining each move even when it seemed he couldn’t hear or follow. When he could no longer swallow they squirted morphine into his cheek and rubbed it so the medicine would be absorbed. “This will make you feel better,” they would say, and my father would turn his head and open his chapped lips like a baby bird.
But his death was not the peaceful drifting away I’d always imagined, where you floated into a calm, morphine-induced sleep, your breath came slower and slower and then simply stopped. He vomited blood over and over. A lifelong stoic who never complained of pain — even when he’d broken a hip the year before — he twitched restlessly in bed, eyes closed, his brow furrowed and his skin clammy.
The magical “managing” of pain and nausea I’d anticipated turned out to be more aspirational than real. The hospice nurse prescribed one anti-nausea medication, then another, without success. Eventually, Ativan and Haldol settled the nausea, and morphine helped the pain. My father was lucky it helped; about 25 percent of people die in pain. One caregiver confided to me, “There are people whose pain we never get under control.”
For days we watched my father’s cheeks hollow, watched him pluck at the thin blanket that was all he could bear on his body. His kind brown eyes glazed over, and some trick of the light made them look blue under his half-closed lids. Sometimes he sat up suddenly, reaching forward, and then fell back on the pillows. I knew there was a name for this behavior, terminal restlessness, that it’s common during the dying process. I knew the gurgling sounds he made as he breathed came from his body’s inability to clear secretions, and that — according to hospice — it probably wasn’t uncomfortable for him.
Leaving the hospice facility one night, I told my 81-year-old aunt that I wished I had the nerve to put a pillow over his face. “I’ll stand guard at the door while you do,” she replied. Dying is hard work. And it’s hard to watch.
On the last night, I sat with my father until the summer sky began to darken. Then I gathered my belongings and leaned over the bed where he lay unresponsive, his eyes closed, his mouth half-open. I kissed his stubbled cheek. “Dad, I’m going now,” I told him. “It’s time for you to go too.” He died a few hours later. He was alone, as most people are when they die, so I don’t know if it was peaceful, if he made a sound or opened his eyes or just stopped breathing.
After he died, I was haunted by scenes of his suffering. I remembered looking out a hospital window nearly 30 years earlier with my newborn daughter in my arms, realizing that every one of the people I saw on the street had been born. For every person walking down Seventh Avenue, a woman had borne pain that tore her body open. It was a horrifying thought.
Drugs help with the pain of childbirth, but they can’t take it away completely. It’s the same with dying.
“Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, [like] fate and death,” wrote psychologist Viktor E. Frankl in his bestseller “Man’s Search for Meaning.” He was something of an expert, having survived nearly three years in a variety of Nazi camps.
Of course, my father’s suffering was nothing like the kind Frankl witnessed. But still, death, like birth, is a creaturely process, a force that wrenches us onward without consulting our preferences or respecting our sensibilities.
In the weeks after my father’s death, I began to understand in a deeper way the meaning of a good death. No drugs took away all my father’s physical pain and nausea. But in the care he was given, the morphine, the quiet words, the repositioning and cool cloths on his forehead, his suffering was addressed even if it couldn’t be “managed.”
And that, I think, is what we all want. Not just freedom from beeping machines and needles and the cold lighting of an ICU, though that matters, too. Not just the absence of pain, which isn’t possible for everyone. But the solace of being seen and heard and acknowledged brings comfort even in the face of deep suffering.
I hope it’s something we can remember as we move toward a society where more of us can have a truly good death.
I knew it was coming; I had known it was coming for years. I had seen my friends go through it, and I had spent many hours thinking deeply about what would happen. Comforted by theories on the nature of consciousness, seduced by feasible rationales for an afterlife, sobered by the practical science of what was really going to happen, I was prepared. And then she died.
My nana had been ill for a long time. Her final diagnosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, came 12 years before she died, although the prognosis was no more than four. She had come close so many times that we had started calling her “the boomerang”. But when she went into hospital for the last time, although in our heads we constructed logical expectations of her coming back to us, in our hearts we knew she wasn’t coming home.
Losing someone close to you is something you can only really talk about once it has happened. All the cliches about grief that I had heard over the years became my reality. Half an hour after she died, my cousin Elliot and I sat in the hospital coffee shop, exhausted, paralysed, silently delirious, while a tiny white butterfly fluttered around our heads, flew a full circle above us and disappeared. Over the next week, the appearance of white butterflies comforted each member of my family at different times in some ineffable way. Despite our wildly varying degrees of faith, that delicate symbol soothed us with an understanding that she was OK: whether she was on a cloud with her brothers and parents, united on an unknown spiritual plane with a greater force as part of a universal consciousness, or just gone, she was no longer in pain.
It was very sad, of course, and that is the best it was ever going to be. The reason I say “the best” is that, if it were not for the acutely careful preparations of us all, including Nana, it could have been far worse.
Palliative care should not be as taboo or scary as it is to many of us. I would go as far as to say that it is the ultimate in wellbeing practices, when a person’s health has failed and all that can be done is care. The word “palliative” comes from the Latin pallium, a cloak, and in many ways this metaphor is apt. In the last days, a “syringe driver” delivered her a steady flow of morphine and anti-anxiety drugs that concealed the worst of her symptoms, shielded her from their effects, protected her from the pain, and even hid her from death for a few more hours or days. If she had not had that, she would have died of hypoxia on the Thursday, gasping violently for breath as she drowned in carbon dioxide that her lungs were too weak to exhale. Instead, she went on until the following Tuesday, my auntie’s birthday, not before she had me write in her card: “Life is worth living because you’re my daughter.” When she finally passed, it was a moment of peace.
(Note to doctors: if it could be called anything other than a “syringe driver”, I think everyone would be much happier. My bampy (grandfather) in particular was unnerved by the name and was initially convinced that it was going to speed up her death.)
On the Saturday, when we all first expected her to go, we played her favourite songs at her bedside: lots of Maria Callas and Ella Fitzgerald, and (who knew?!) Hot Chocolate’s No Doubt About It, a song that recounts Errol Brown’s alien visitation. We were gifted the time to rejoice with her in what made her joyful, emotional and eccentric. As she appeared to slip away, our tear-stained faces fixed around her in uncontainable smiles, sure that the hour had come, she boomeranged back again, just in time for The Chase.
Memories of moments in her final days are precious and I am gratefully aware of how lucky my family and I are to have had them. They exist because of palliative-care specialists. What a mystically unique role: part scientist, part shaman; half doctor, half priest; with careful words held equally as important as the careful drugs. Never hard-heartedly functional, and never “compulsively positive”, it is as if they are of the same station as midwives, just on the other end. I am profoundly moved by this practice. The UK is reportedly the best in the world at end-of-life care, which is cause to be proud, and there are calls from both the International Association of Research in Cancer and the World Health Organization to declare palliative care a human right.
As someone whose first close bereavement was sort-of-sweet-sad but without regret, I support these proposals wholeheartedly. I wish that all people could be treated with such deep compassion and humanity. I sincerely hope that, when it is my time to die, my family and I will be helped to prepare in the same caring, tender way that my grandmother and family were in Llandough on a long weekend in July.
As a culture, Americans—more often than not—have a tendency to avoid thinking and talking about death and dying. Yet pondering our mortality can have a profound impact on our lives.
Our health care system is set up with a single, default pathway for all medical care: aggressive, invasive treatment, no matter how old or how sick you are. For some people, this makes perfect sense and can save lives. For others, a different approach to care is required. But it starts with having a relationship with our own mortality and reflecting on what matters most in our own lives. I have seen far too many people suffer by receiving treatment that is not in line with their goals and values.
In our modern era of fast-paced life, constant digital connectedness, and a culture striving to be “doing” all the time, it’s easy to get caught up in things that don’t matter. If we can reflect on the bigger picture in life, the preciousness of each moment, we can more easily let go of things that aren’t important. I believe there are three key benefits to thinking about our mortality at least once a day:
1. You’ll be motivated to leave a legacy.
Ask yourself, what do you want to leave behind? The idea of legacy awareness is a way to connect with our own mortality as it relates to our work, loved ones, and creative endeavors. If we think about legacy as a means to transcend death, we may be more likely to invest in our health and personal development throughout life.
Artists, for example, live on long after they’re gone thanks to their creative legacy. That’s just one way of forming a legacy. Whether you are creating art, giving back to your community, raising a family, or making a positive impact on the lives of others, these are all powerful ways to leave a legacy for generations to come.
2. Life will instantly feel more precious.
Too much of a good thing decreases its value. Life is precious. It’s also temporary. Even when you’re young and healthy, your life could end unexpectedly at any time. Recognizing that life is fleeting helps us find joy and meaning in the small things—sunset and sunrise, a smile on your child’s face, a tree in the park—that sometimes get lost in the day-to-day. The people in your life can take on a new value because we realize that their lives are also temporary.
3. You’ll learn not to sweat the small stuff.
Thinking about our mortality can serve as inspiration to think more holistically about what it means to live our best life. In other words, it can move us to exercise and eat well because we only get one body. And at the same time, it’s an invaluable reminder that we only get one life, and we better enjoy it. So many of us are on a quest to find balance in our lives and define our own priorities. Remembering that we have this one life to live can help when weighing where we want to put our energy and attention.
Countless psychological studies have shown that a recognition of our own eventual ending can allow us to live a richer life—one filled with gratitude, presence of mind, and happiness. As you go through the checklist of factors contributing to your overall well-being—getting quality sleep, eating healthy food, exercising regularly, and sustaining meaningful relationships—make sure that forming a relationship with your own mortality is high on the list.
No one knew how important this practice was better than Apple’s Steve Jobs who, during his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, said, “Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
If contemplating your mortality triggers fear, consider this.
Does thinking about our own death trigger fear? According to the 2017 Survey of American Fears conducted by Chapman University, 20.3% of Americans are “afraid” or “very afraid” of dying. While for some, fear of death is healthy as it makes us more cautious (such as wearing seat belts and minimizing high-risk behaviors), some people may also have an unhealthy fear of dying, which interferes with their daily life.
Psychologist and spirituality expert Stephen Taylor looked at those who lost loved ones, and many tend to have a more accepting attitude toward death. This may result from “post-traumatic growth,” or personal growth from trauma. Others suggest that much of our fear of death stems from not wanting to lose the things we’ve built up (i.e., relationships, possessions, or status). By letting go (even a little) of fierce attachments, it can allow for valuable shifts in perspective and benefits to our well-being.
My friend and colleague, B.J. Miller, M.D., puts this in a different light. “Death is not at odds with living. You can’t get one without the other.” Whether we like it or not, death is always present. Connecting to the fact that life is defined by the fact that it will end one day will allow you to live more fully, experience deeper relationships, and provide new meaning to your days.
Next time you have the opportunity to reflect on your mortality, think about how it might enrich your life today.
The Evening Thread” is a short stop-motion film made entirely by hand with watercolour and paper cut-outs.
In the film, an old woman prepares to die. Accompanied by her granddaughter, she reflects on the memories of her life, and on the profound experience of being human, before taking the next step into the unknown.
Dying is a social not a medical event. We must accept it as part of life’s narrative
By June Shannon
“How people die lives on in the memory of those who live on.” – Dame Cicely Saunders,, founder of the modern hospice movement.
Do you know what dying looks like? Do you want to know?
A lot of people are afraid of death and dying, yet like birth, it is one of life’s most natural processes. We don’t talk about it, but it happens to us all, and if we are very lucky, it occurs at the end of a long and happy life.
For many who fear death it is perhaps the fear of the unknown that is most terrifying, and it is that fear that Dr Kathryn Mannix, former palliative care physician, author and full-time campaigner for better public understanding of dying, is working to ease by encouraging us all to “narrate dying”.
Speaking to The Irish Times, Dr Mannix said that after 30 years in palliative care she found she was having the same conversations with unprepared families and terrified people with terminal illnesses, whose image of dying came only from television and films which did not reflect reality. She said people generally, had no idea what the “normal, relatively predictable and usually, fairly comfortable process dying is actually like”.
She recalled meeting the adult retired sons of a father in his late 90s who was dying and none of them knew what their father’s wishes were. She described them as “panic-stricken” when asked how or where their father wished to die. A number of the sons who were in their 70s, confessed that their father had in the past tried to share his wishes for the end of his life with his sons, but they refused to discuss it and jokingly admonished him for being morbid.
“This made me realise that we can’t keep doing this to our families,” Dr Mannix said. “This is a national public health problem. In fact, it is an international public health problem that people in parts of the world that have highly developed and sophisticated and accessible to everybody medicine, have forgotten what normal dying looks like.”
Planning for death
According to Dr Mannix, nowadays the tendency in modern health systems to call an ambulance to bring everyone who is very sick and may die, to a hospital full of technology that might just save their lives, which, she acknowledged was wonderful if it worked, meant that nobody knows what normal death looks like. “So now nobody knows what dying is like. Everybody is terrified, nobody is talking about it, everybody thinks they know what it’s like, and everybody thinks it is awful. And actually, if they were less afraid, they would be able to sit down and have those conversations and plan better and die better,” she said.
Instead of putting off what may seem like a difficult conversation until it is too late, Dr Mannix suggested that we should all know more about dying and start planning for our own deaths while we are well. “We should all be thinking about how we would like our dying to be, where, who would be our companions,” she said.
She added that these plans can be tweaked with time and suggested that we should be having these conversations around any birthday that falls on the five times table after the age of 50.
Dr Mannix explained that like birth, which starts with labour pains and progresses through a predictable sequence of events, the process of dying also involves an anticipated sequence of events that are very similar from one person to the next, irrespective of what they are dying from.
“Just like every woman who has ever given birth to a baby feels she has had a particular unique experience, every midwife who has attended that woman has been through the same process that she always has. Because it’s the individual who makes it individual, it is not the process . . . every person who is dying is having their own unique, individual, personal family experience but those of us who are caring for them are seeing the same sequence of events time after time,” she said.
Steps of process
When Dr Mannix meets a patient who expresses a fear of being in pain or distressed when they die, she gently asks if they would like her to explain the process of dying to them and tells them that if they find it too distressing, they can ask her to stop at any time.
Nobody has ever asked Dr Mannix to stop.
She said that when people learn what really happens when we die, they don’t find it terrifying, on the contrary they see it as compelling and comforting.
“I tell somebody and then there is a long pause, usually when I dry my eyes . . . and then they say ‘That’s not what I was expecting, can you tell my wife that? Can you tell my dad that, can you tell my kids that?’ and, ‘That’s wonderful I want my family to know it will be a comfort’.”
Dr Mannix explained that at the end of our lives we simply get more tired and need to sleep more.
As the illness state advances and death becomes closer, the periods of being awake get less and the periods of sleep get longer. Eventually, she said there comes a time when a patient is so deeply unconscious that they cannot be woken. When they do wake up later on, they report that they had a good sleep. Therefore, Dr Mannix said we know that being unconscious is not unpleasant for people.
She explained that when a person is unconscious, medical staff can continue to give them their regular medication to help ease the symptoms of their disease, such as breathlessness or pain, via an injection or syringe pump rather than in tablet form.
“They sleep more, they are awake less. We change the route of the medicines, but it isn’t the medicines making people sleep, it’s the illness, it’s the process of dying and at the very end of people’s lives they lapse into unconsciousness,” she said.
Dr Mannix explained that this unconsciousness doesn’t feel like falling asleep and the person is not aware that it is happening.
Once the person is completely unconscious the only part of the brain that still functions is that which drives breathing which then becomes completely automatic.
She explained that at this point a person’s breathing alternates between cycles of deep and shallow breathing.
She also pointed out that in this deeply unconscious state, the dying person is not aware of their vocal cords. However, when they breathe out through their vocal cords it can make a noise and family members may fear that this is the sound of their loved one groaning or sighing in distress.
The so-called “death rattle” people hear can also be explained. This too is all part of the dying process and occurs because the dying person is so unconscious that they can no longer cough or swallow to clear normal secretions like saliva or mucus from the back of their throat.
“We would normally cough or splutter or gag if anything is touching the back of our throat because it is a reflex to preserve our lives. Once you are deeply unconscious, all of those sensations are just lost and we tolerate that . . . because you are breathing, the air is going in and out, it makes that funny clicking noise that you would normally never hear in any other circumstances because, in any other circumstances people would clear their throat,” she explained.
Dr Mannix said it was important to remind families that this was automatic breathing because when someone is deeply unconscious, they cannot feel distress.
“As time goes by the breathing gets slower, there are pauses and then eventually there will be an outbreath which doesn’t seem any different to any other out breath, but there just isn’t an inbreath afterwards. It’s as gentle as that.”
According to Dr Mannix, 100 years ago we would never have spoken about childbirth in public, but we would have all known about dying and she believes it is time for lay people to reclaim death and dying.
While Dr Mannix acknowledged that GPs, community nurses and palliative care specialists would always have a role in the dying process, to help ease symptoms and ensure that the person is as comfortable as possible, she said that dying was not a medical matter but rather a social one.
Therefore, she was appealing to medicine to “give dying back to everyone”. “People will only understand what is happening around the death bed if we narrate it,” she said.
By helping grieving families understand the dying process, this will allow them to take the comfort of witnessing their loved one experience normal, gentle dying into their bereavement with them, Dr Mannix said.
“You can’t stop it from being sad. If we love people, then death is a terrible blow – it is a very great sadness. But we can stop it from being terrifying. We can give people the knowledge that they need to be with people who are dying.”
Dr Mannix’s book With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial was shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize and she is one of a number of speakers due to address the annual dotMD conference which takes place in Galway in September.
Hailed as a festival of medical curiosity and known by some as the Electric Picnic of medical conferences, dotMD is a celebration of the heart of medicine. dotMD is curated by Dr Ronan Kavanagh, consultant rheumatologist; Dr Muiris Houston, GP and medical journalist and writer; and Dr Alan Coss, consultant gastroenterologist.
The purpose of this highly popular event which, for the first time in its seven-year history is taking place outside Dublin, is to expose doctors, medical students and other healthcare professionals to the ideas taking place at the interface between medicine, the humanities and technology.
Themes included in this year’s two-day dotMD meeting in Galway on Friday, September 13th and Saturday, September 14th, include, jazz, death, art, stories and zombies.
What a doctor wishes people knew about living, dying well
By A. Pawlowski
Here’s what really matters at the end of life and how to avoid the biggest regrets.
Life is precious because it ends one day, but death is not the enemy. The enemy is a wasted life.
It’s a message Dr. BJ Miller, a hospice and palliative care specialist in San Francisco, wants people to remember as they come to terms with their mortality. Miller’s own brush with death as a college student left him a triple amputee and an advocate for a dignified end of life.
“There’s no guarantee for tomorrow, ever,” Miller told TODAY.
“Watching my patients die helps me think about what’s important to me in my life. So when it’s my time, hopefully I’ll have fewer regrets and, along the way, I hope to have a more meaningful life thanks to their lessons.”
Avoid common and painful regrets at the end of life
Miller: There’s usually regret about having been unkind and selfish. It’s shame around having ever been a jerk to anybody, including to oneself.
One of the things dying teaches you is life goes on outside of you, too. You are a grain of sand among a gazillion grains of sand and the sooner you can delight in life outside of yourself, the better you’ll be able to handle your own death and the kinder, more forgiving you’ll be.
Life is just hard and there’s only so much we can get done in it. Forgiveness ends up being a huge theme. If you find yourself in a petty argument that kept you from re-establishing contact with someone you once loved, those get revealed to be practically almost silly at the end of life and people often regret losing contact.
Participate in your life and your dying
Miller: This is your life. Sometimes patients tell me they got robbed or that this is a huge detour or some anomaly in their life. The reminder is: No, this is your life — this is it. And because time is precious, if you don’t engage with your life on a real level, you are squandering your time.
Be an active participant in your own life in every way, including your illness and your dying, because those are parts of your life — your life while you have it. You don’t need to control everything, just participate.
Remember what people at the end of life care about most
Miller: If someone is lucky enough to have a family or a group of friends who are nearby, one thing a dying person really wants to know is that their loved ones are going to be OK. That they’re going to keep living, keep trying and going to try to love themselves and the world. That’s a really powerful thing.
So as a loved one, one of the kindest things you can do for someone who is dying is to let them know you’re going to take care of yourself. That’s not a selfish thing; that’s something the dying person will often really long to hear.
Take comfort that many people have accepted the end
Miller: In most cases I’ve been involved with, by the time death rolls around, the dying person is often really done with this body, done with this life. And whether by force or by choice, acceptance often does come because the fact of dying becomes just so obvious, it’s just so clearly coming.
Dying is often harder in some ways on the people around the dying person — harder on the people who have to keep living.
Clean out the skeletons in your closet before the end
Miller: There’s a hygiene to the process of dying. You go through life and accumulate all this stuff and all that has to go away when you die. You can leave all this emotional and physical residue of stuff, or you can clean it up and by doing so, leave less of a mess for people who are going to live on.
It’s a cleaner grief, in a way, not complicated by finding old letters with secrets in them that can be a source of torture. If you clean up your life on the way out, it can feel wonderful, it can feel very true and it can be an extremely kind gift.
Keep hope going
Miller: I honestly believe that we as a species will do better if we come to terms with our mortality earlier in life. Get used to exercising hope within the framework of life being short and precious.
If my patients come to me and are losing hope, I’ll say “OK, let’s come to terms with the hope that’s being lost. Let’s grieve that, but now let’s find what we still can hope for.”
As long as you have another breath in you, you can hope for something.
As long as you have another breath in you, you can hope for something: Peace, comfort, the well-being of people you love. It’s always a matter of framing your hope.
Simple pleasures, rather than grand moments, are appreciated at the end of life
Miller: It may be simply going outside and feeling the sun on your skin. A shower can be magical, sunlight can be magical. Just delighting in the cool breeze on your face or the sound of laughter. Very basic primal stuff.
Think about what might happen after death
Miller: If you’re around folks who are taking their final breaths, you can see life going out of somebody. You can tell the body is just a shell, something is gone now. Where does that life go? Is there a soul? Is there a spirit?
I find a joy in not knowing. I know dying, but I don’t know death. My compromise is to embrace the mystery of it all.