Coronavirus reminds you of death

– and amplifies your core values, both bad and good

Gustav Klimt’s ‘Death and Life’ suggests the way many people are unaware of death’s ever-present influence.

By &

There’s nothing like a worldwide pandemic and its incessant media coverage to get you ruminating on the fragility of life. And those thoughts of death triggered by the coronavirus amplify the best and worst in people.

The results of this psychological phenomenon are all around: people hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, hurling ethnic slurs and attacking Asian Americans, heaping praise or scorn on President Trump, hailing new political and health care heroes. Sheltering at home has drawn some families closer together, but is a crucible of domestic violence for others. For many, social distancing has increased feelings of isolation, boredom, anxiety and despair.

What’s behind these attitudinal and behavioral shifts?

Back in 1986, we first developed an idea called terror management theory that explains how people double down on their essential beliefs, without even noticing, when confronted with their own mortality.

Hundreds of psychology experiments from the past 30 years have explored how people react to the thought of their own death. These reminders bolster people’s core worldviews, making racists more hateful, the religious more devout, the charitable more giving and constituents more suportive of charismatic leaders.

At a moment when the idea of death is front and center for many people, this psychological tendency has important implications for everything from how grocery store cashiers are treated to how people will vote in the upcoming presidential election.

No one gets out alive

Terror management theory acknowledges that human beings are animals biologically predisposed to try to survive. But at the same time, people also realize how dangerous the world is, how vulnerable we are and that ultimately the quest for continued existence is doomed to fail.

Knowing that we will all die, and it can happen at any time, can give rise to potentially paralyzing terror. To manage this fear, people work to see themselves as valuable contributors to a meaningful universe. Viewing yourself as an important worker, entrepreneur, teacher, artist, scientist, lawyer, doctor, parent, spouse and so forth allows you to feel like you’re not just a material creature who will disappear upon death.

Rather than dwelling on that disturbing thought, you can believe in things like immortal souls, in your offspring carrying on your genes and values or in your work having an enduring impact. It’s comforting to believe that some part of you will continue after death, through your connections to your family, profession, religion or nation.

Thoughts of death lead people to cling more tightly to these soothing beliefs. Such thoughts can be triggered by simply reading a news story about a murder, being reminded of 9/11 or even glancing at a funeral home sign.

Death reminders first trigger immediate, front-line defenses – you want to feel safe by getting death out of your mind right away. Then subconscious downstream defenses work to fortify the protective bubble of the symbolic reality you believe in. Researchers have found that these downstream defenses include more punitive reactions to criminals, increased rewards for heroes, prejudice toward other religions and countries and allegiance to charismatic politicians.

Pandemic provides nonstop reminders of death

Because of the coronavirus, death reminders are all around. Front-line reactions range from efforts to shelter at home, maintain social distancing and wash hands frequently to dismissing the threat by comparing it to the flu or calling it a political hoax meant to undermine the economy and thwart President Trump’s reelection effort.

People who are more optimistic about their coping skills and have confidence in health care providers are prone to react constructively. They typically follow the recommendations of health care experts.

But people prone to pessimism and skepticism regarding health care authorities are more likely to deny the threat, ignore recommendations and react hostilely to expert advice.

These first-tier defenses banish death thoughts from consciousness, but do not eliminate their influence. Instead the thoughts linger just outside your attention, triggering downstream defenses that reinforce your valuable place in your world.

One way to enhance your value is through contributing to and identifying with heroic efforts to defeat this threat. That can happen via your own behavior and by lauding those leading the charge, such as first responders, health care workers, scientists and political leaders. Even those who inhabit social roles not usually given their due are recognized as heroes: grocery cashiers, pharmacists and sanitation workers.

At the same time, many people question their value more because of the pandemic. Earning a living to provide for one’s family and connecting with others are fundamental ways to feel valuable. Pragmatic health and economic concerns and impoverished social connections can combine to threaten those feelings of meaning and value. In turn they can increase levels of anxiety, depression and mental health problems.

Existentially threatening times also tend to create heroes and villains. American scientists, like Anthony Fauci, and political figures, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, are more widely admired. President Trump’s approval rating temporarily increased. In times of crisis, people typically turn to their leaders, and put additional faith in them.

At the same time, people also seek to assign blame. Some turn their fear and frustration about the coronavirus that first emerged in China into hate toward Asians and Asian Americans. Others, depending on their political leanings, blame the World Health Organization, the mainstream media, or President Trump.

Even if the coronavirus abates, thoughts of mortality will linger on the fringes of consciousness as the November election approaches. If President Trump is perceived as a heroic wartime president who got the country through the worst of this invisible enemy, such death reminders could work to his advantage.

If, however, the president is viewed as an incompetent bungler responsible for the virus spreading and the economy collapsing, the same death reminders could undermine his chances.

We’re all in this together

If you’re interested in trying to short-circuit some of these unconscious defenses, our research suggests a few promising possibilities. Maybe the best approach is to consciously acknowledge your mortal fears. By doing so, you can gain some reasoned control over their influence on your judgments and behavior.

We also suggest keeping in mind that all human beings are one interdependent species sharing the same planet. Recognizing that the coronavirus poses the same existential threat for all of us helps underscore that humanity is a group we all belong to. It’s by working together and not turning on each other that we will be able to recover our economic, physical and psychological vitality.

Complete Article HERE!

How Dying Taught Me to Live

By Brad Dell 

His little ribs rose, then fell, then rose, then fell, then stayed still. The spark left his green, curious eyes — I swear it wasn’t a trick of the light. They were dull … dead.

I loathed myself for letting my first cat be put to sleep without me by her side. I swore I’d be there for my second when he passed less than a year later. I swore I’d look him in the eye, even if it meant nothing to him. And so I did.

The odd thing was that he wasn’t afraid. He was calm. He’d spent a good life of hunting, cuddling, and lounging. He knew his place in nature’s cycle. I didn’t understand that. Not then.

But my time came.

Sepsis destroyed me. As my soul ripped loose from my bones, I gasped to my girlfriend that I loved her but I would soon need to die. Then I pissed the bed. I realized that dying isn’t romantic like in the movies. I stank from rolling around in a soiled, sweaty bed, and my voice was hoarse from begging for an end.

While death isn’t romantic, it can be peaceful. In my time, I’ve known many who have passed — they’re either ready or they’re not. I wasn’t yet ready. I was ugly and bitter in my death, outraged by the unfairness of this world.

Somehow, I survived.

The paradox of death is that it teaches you how to live. The tragedy of death is not everyone gets a chance to apply what they’ve learned.

I woke up in an unfamiliar world. All details seemed illuminated and emotions felt overwhelmingly potent. I cried a lot more, hugged a lot more, prayed a lot more, loved a lot more.

Former priorities fell away; ambition, money, and comfort lost their gleam. Each day during recovery, I composed an obituary in my head: “Boy dies of cystic fibrosis. He had caustic humor, good grades, and a decent savings account.” I craved depth and vowed to thrive with passion and weave a legacy of compassion.

Did my old friend know I’m sorry for calling him fat in fifth grade? Did my sister know I look up to her? Did my parents know I regret every single time I lashed out at them? Did everyone know that I mostly only pretended to love, yet always yearned to learn its power?

I lay in my soiled bed and tried recalling instances in which I’d helped people out of love rather than for the potential of a self-serving debt. I sobbed at the realization that I’d lost myself long, long ago. In prayer, I begged for redemption, for help with becoming the Brad I was designed to be.

It’s been 47 months since that prayer. I’m nowhere close to perfect, but I’m far from who I was. Today, my joy comes from expressions of vulnerability, wide smiles and belly laughs, the bonds forged through struggle, the light in people’s eyes, the warmth of another body, the tears poured in prayers, the little acts of love and the big acts of love, the feet that tap along to music, the winding conversations over meals, the exhilaration of adventure, the richness of sharing nature and sunsets with strangers.

I am ready to die, when that time comes again, though I’d love to learn even more about life with a third pass. Death is liberating, driving me to be fully present and live intentionally for the things that truly matter.

Like my old cat, I know my place in nature’s cycle. Mine is to love and be loved in return. Maybe that seems sappy to those who haven’t yet died. But one day you’ll understand, too.

Complete Article HERE!

I Accept Death.

I Hope Doctors and Nurses Will, Too.

Bodies being moved into a refrigerated truck outside of Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, in April.

A lesson from hospice care might help.

By Theresa Brown

Nurses crying. That’s what I hear from the front lines treating Covid-19 patients. A nurse will begin the shift crying and end it crying. Crying. And we are not a profession that cries easily.

“Untenable” is how the sister of Dr. Lorna Breen, a physician in New York who died by suicide in late April, described her sister’s work situation. She was right. In hospitals with Covid-19 patients, understaffed clinicians often lack sufficient personal protective equipment and tests for the virus, and they fear for their own lives. These conditions would wear on anyone. But they amount to a staggering burden for doctors, nurses and health workers of all kinds whose deeply ingrained duty is to save the lives of their patients.

These medical workers remain devoted to curing and easing the pain of the desperately ill. But what can be done about their pain? Their feelings of failure? Frontline clinicians all over the country are experiencing anxiety, insomnia, a sense of acute inadequacy, and feelings of being betrayed by hospital administrators. Many will likely end up with PTSD. Helplessly watching so many people die, especially when many of them die without their loved ones present, is professionally “untenable.”

We know there is no universally effective treatment for the sickest Covid-19 patients. But their deaths are clearly not the fault of their caregivers. Is it possible to ease clinicians’ burdens so that they feel less personally responsible when these patients die? I believe that another type of care situation, that of a hospice, may offer some lessons.

The most fragile Covid-19 patients are not unlike hospice patients: There is no cure for their condition. While they differ from hospice patients — their deaths often come on suddenly and cannot be foreseen — clinicians might more easily make peace with their deaths by viewing them through a hospice lens.

Even though we are all going to die, death fits uneasily into the world of health care. Fundamentally, health and healing apply to the living, not the dying or the dead, and helping the living get better is why most nurses and doctors got into this work. When I worked in oncology, I saw this principle acted out by physicians who viewed death as failure, and nurses who equated talking honestly about bad prognoses with destroying patients’ hope.

Hospice care approaches death very differently. Practicing as a nurse in home hospice, I understood that patients were going to die. The goal was for them to have the best life possible for as long as possible and to die with minimal distress. Some people associate hospice with “giving up” on dying patients, but that is mistaken. Hospice staff do not hurry death along. Rather, hospice clinicians concede that curative treatment either does not exist for, or has been declined by, the patient, and accept that patients will die under hospice care.

As a hospice nurse, I managed symptoms — pain, trouble breathing, delirium — treated wounds, listened to stories from the past and acknowledged hopes and fears for the future. My intention was that all of my patients would leave this earth without suffering, and though that wasn’t always possible, I tried.

People often say that hospice nurses are angels. I tended to demur and say, “Nope, I’m human.” What the praise shows, I think, is that being comfortable with death is unusual. “Comfortable” is the wrong word: I accept death. I accept its inevitability, but also its importance. Death is the end of each person’s time on earth; it is a privilege to care for people in that moment. I embrace the cycle of life while recognizing the sadness of every death.

(That acceptance is somewhat conditional, though. Two and a half years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I chose to take a leave from hospice work. My diagnosis brought the cycle of life a little too close.)

What’s more, a century ago, all of us would have been much more familiar with death than we are now. There were no high-tech emergency departments or I.C.U.s; most people died at home. Modernity made it possible to hide death in hospitals, behind beeping machines and snaking tubes and wires. But now that the entire world is threatened by a previously unknown virus, death has once again come closer.

I am not suggesting that health care workers become indifferent to Covid-19 deaths, or that a certain amount of death from this disease should be callously dismissed as inevitable. No. Instead, I’m urging nurses and doctors to feel less overtly responsible when Covid-19 patients die. As a hospice nurse, I never experienced a patient’s death as failure. Some deaths seemed unjust in a universal sense, like a young mother succumbing to cancer or a dying patient saying she was denied the full scope of cancer treatments because she was black. But the trajectory toward death — I accepted it.

When a patient dies on home hospice, a hospice nurse legally pronounces the death by calling the medical examiner and getting the body released. At pronouncements I did the required paperwork, and I also helped hold, or emotionally contain, the death for everyone gathered. I witnessed the ending of a cherished life and honored loved ones’ grief.

Hospital staff caring for Covid-19 patients need someone to help them hold all the deaths. It is too much to feel responsible for so many imperiled lives, day after day, to rub up against one of the most challenging and often unacknowledged paradoxes of modern health care: Even though we work very hard to heal people, sometimes they still die.

It might be possible to plant a hospice nurse in every Covid-19 I.C.U., but frontline clinicians can also do the work of acceptance by admitting that despite their training, intelligence, tenacity and technology, patients will continue to die of Covid-19. That fact is tragic, and knowing that the mortality rate has been compounded by the failings of our health care system doesn’t help. But it is still possible that the sum of human suffering in this situation can be lessened if nurses and doctors put the blame for their patients’ deaths where they belong — on the virus, not on themselves.

Complete Article HERE!

How to prepare for death

By Peter J. Adams

The main challenge in reflecting on one’s own death is the way the various aspects of death and dying are intertwined which make it difficult to discern personal mortality.

First there is the prospect of me dying; of me entering whatever is in store at the end of my life. How long will it last? Will there be pain? What will I leave behind? How do I say goodbye? Next there is the prospect of other people dying, particularly the death of loved-ones and the painful absence their loss leaves behind. How would I cope with the death of a close friend, a partner, a child? But thinking about my dying and other people’s deaths are different. Dying is an event in life, admittedly an important event, but still one that happens within the course of life. Similarly, coming to terms with the loss of a loved-one is an important process, but it belongs to a different domain than my death.

Another temptation is to think of my death as though it is like the death of others. I imagine myself in the shoes of someone as they approach their death. Maybe it would be my soul that is absorbed into a zone of endless tranquility. Maybe it would be my body lying motionless in the coffin. I conjure up images of love-ones with shocked expressions as they are told about my death, I visualize their forlorn looks as they watch my coffin descending into the grave and I picture their reactions to constantly interacting with the spaces I now no longer occupy.

But thinking about my death in terms of what happens when others die does not fully capture what happens when I think about my own death. When I die, looking at myself from the outside, my brain will stop working, my senses will cease to operate, I will no longer have any voluntary control of my muscles, and my body will lie limp and lifeless. This is undeniably what will happen.

Looking at this from the inside is more complicated. If my brain and my body cease to function, then it makes sense to consider my emotions, my consciousness and all those aspects that make up my subjective world, as ceasing to operate as well. My consciousness surely relies on input from my senses plus the processing power of my brain, so without them it is hard to think of how consciousness might persist. I might reassure myself that my consciousness will continue in some form in another realm, but I can’t be sure. It makes more sense to say that when all the conditions for consciousness are no longer present then my consciousness will no longer be able to function.

But this is a terrible thought; a horrifying realization with alarming consequences. My consciousness is always present whenever I look out at anything in the world. I never experience anything around me without being conscious. When I am unconscious, such as when I am asleep or knocked out, I assume the world continues under its own steam, but this is an assumption which I can never fully trust. What I can be surer about is that the world and my consciousness are always paired; they are always together, each interacting with and enabling the other, and participating together in allowing what is going on around me to continue to take place.

What this throws up is the possibility that without my mind the world, and all that it contains—objects, animals, people, loved ones—will cease to exist. In other words, from the standpoint of how I experience things, when I die the conditions that enable the existence of both my consciousness and the world around me will, most likely, no longer be present. In this way, the prospect of my own death highlights the possibility of the end of everything.

The unthinkable and unspeakable nature of my death forces me to walk repeatedly down a conceptual dead-end; a dead-end which discourages any further attempts to think along the same track. Even if we were to consider it important to form some sort of relationship to my death, there is no identifiable object to connect with, there is nothing to cling on to; it stands there as a conceptual black-hole; an emptiness which we can only approach with insecurity and foreboding.

Here lies the true challenge of reflecting on my death; the idea of it as an unthinkable, unspeakable nothingness. But, despite this, thinkers, poets, and artists have, over the centuries, still had a lot to say about personal mortality. It is just too big a part of the rhythm and structure of life to be ignored.

It is, similarly, important for each of us not to turn our backs on death and, despite its unintelligibility, to seek out ways of engaging with it. What is needed is some sort of provisional handhold that allows each of us to reach out and grasp onto something that can enable us to pursue a lifelong relationship with personal mortality.

Complete Article HERE!

At New York hospital, a friar watches over those dying

‘The miracle is to let go’

Brother Robert Bathe, a Carmelite friar, outside of Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan.

By Kevin Armstrong
The morning after he turned 52 last month, Brother Robert Bathe emerged from the Millennium Hotel on West 44th Street. He ambled half a block into Times Square and reflected on the emptiness. A street cleaner’s whoosh broke the silence.

Dressed in a brown robe, the traditional garb of his Carmelite order, Bathe began his daily walk down Broadway. At 28th Street, he hooked left and continued to Bellevue Hospital, where he is a Roman Catholic chaplain and bereavement coordinator.

“Welcome to ground zero,” he said before a nurse trained a thermometer gun on his forehead and scanned for a reading.

It read 98.6. The nurse nodded.

“Normally,” he said, “the family is there with me bedside at death, and when we say the Our Father it is very emotional. Now I stare at a person that is taking their last breaths. I’m with a doctor and a couple of nurses. We’re saying goodbye.”

Bathe is the friar on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic. A native Tennessean who was a soil scientist before entering religious life at age 27, his Southern accent is the first voice many patients’ family members hear from the city’s oldest hospital when he calls to inquire about special needs.

Each morning, he reviews death logs. He then walks through the emergency department and intensive care unit, where he stands behind glass and cues up music on the smartphone he keeps in his pocket. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a favorite selection. On Funky Fridays, as he calls them, Bathe mixes Benedictine chants with James Brown. If patients are awake, he flexes his biceps or pumps a fist — encouragement to stay strong. He takes precautions when praying over the intubated, slipping on an N95 mask and face shield. In all, he ministers to more than 25 patients daily.

“Music gives a little more sense of sacredness so I don’t get distracted by nurses and doctors screaming,” he said. “I am focused on that patient, looking at that face. I know who that person is, imagine what it is like for them to be alive.”

Bathe speaks with a man across the street from Bellevue Hospital. He says he was called to become a friar more than two decades ago after witnessing a man die in North Carolina.
Bathe greets people in the Mount Carmel Place courtyard near the hospital. The coronavirus continues to paralyze New York and stretch the limits of its hospital system.

His pager pulses with death updates. It is programmed to receive alerts for cardiac emergencies, traumas and airway issues. Whenever a coronavirus patient on a ventilator needs attention, it comes across his screen twice. When a nurse who worked in the neonatal ICU died of covid-19 recently, Mary Ann Tsourounakis, Bellevue’s senior associate director of maternal child health, called pastoral care for help. A group of nurses grieved. First to arrive was Bathe, who led them in prayer in a small hallway.

“One of the most healing and loving I’ve heard,” Tsourounakis said. “People think it has to be a big production. Sometimes those moments are the moments.”

The virus continues to paralyze the city and stretch the limits of its hospital system. Confirmed cases have surpassed 185,000 and more than 20,316 deaths had been recorded, according to the New York City Health Department.

Bathe’s path to New York began in Knoxville, Tenn. He grew up around his grandfather’s cattle farm, went on frequent hikes as an Eagle Scout and eyed a career as a forest ranger while a teenager. His mother, Linda, worked at the University of Tennessee, and she consulted with faculty members about her son’s future in forestry. Prospects were slim, and alternate paths — archaeology or agriculture — were suggested.

He didn’t see himself traveling to Egypt to unearth tombs, so he dug into agricultural studies and toiled with botany and geology as well. Following graduation, he worked for the Buncombe County environmental health agency in North Carolina. Hired to protect groundwater, his release was to drop a line in honey holes for catfish, pitch a tent and listen to bluegrass songs after dark.

One day, Bathe was sent to meet a man named Robert Warren to evaluate his soil so he could build a house. When Bathe arrived, he saw Warren slumped over in his truck. As Bathe approached, he said, Warren grabbed his hand and asked, “Would you pray with me?”

They recited the Lord’s Prayer, he said. Moments later, he was dead, Bathe recalled. Bathe accompanied him to the hospital and attended the memorial service and funeral.

Bathe joined the Carmelites soon after, and in 1997 was assigned to Our Lady of the Scapular and St. Stephen’s Church, two blocks from Bellevue. Lessons followed.

One day, he said, a woman fell from her window in a neighboring building and through the church roof. Bathe was sent up to investigate.

“First dead body I ever smelled,” he says. “Life is tender.”

long his almost two-mile walk to work, Bathe’s appearance and demeanor have become well known and appreciated.

Transfers are part of the friar life. He taught in Boca Raton, Fla., and served as the vocation director from Maine to Miami before returning to Manhattan two and a half years ago.

In ordinary times, Bathe receives a monthly allowance of $250, lives in the St. Eliseus Priory in Harrison, N.J., and rides the PATH train. He fell ill in January, experienced the chills, registered a temperature of 101 and lost weight. He believed it was pneumonia then and self-isolated, using a back stairwell to his room. His brothers left meals outside his door, and he returned to Bellevue after convalescing. He has yet to be tested for covid-19.

Since March 30, the hospital has facilitated his participation in a program that provides free or discounted rooms for front-line workers, first at a Comfort Inn on the west side of Manhattan and now at the Millennium, to limit his commute. Along the route to work, his bald head, eager gait and hearty laugh are known to mendicants and administrators alike.

He carries on the tradition of the Carmelites, who have ministered at Bellevue since the 1800s, through periodic epidemics, saying Masses from the psychiatric ward to the prison unit. Colleagues include a new rabbi and a 20-year-old imam.

When a Catholic dies, he performs the commendation of the dead, a seven-minute service. His responsibilities range from distributing Communion to finding prayer books for patients across faiths to leading memorial services for staff. He is “staunchly against” virtual bereavement, which has become common amid the pandemic, insisting on providing a physical presence.

“People are looking for a miracle when the miracle is to let go,” he said. “Call me too practical, but I don’t pray they leap out of the grave like Lazarus. I think we’re meant for better. We’re meant for God.”

Hospital staffers are processing what has happened since the pandemic first gripped New York, and they’re bracing for a potential second wave. Since Lorna Breen, medical director for the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, died by suicide last month, Bellevue has increased its support services for employees. Questions about closure come from all mourners.

“Families ask, ‘Are we going to be able to have our loved one go to Mexico?’ ” Bathe said. “How are we going to do the next step, to bury our loved ones?”

long his almost two-mile walk to work, Bathe’s appearance and demeanor have become well known and appreciated.

On a recent Sunday, Bathe stepped outside for a breather in what some people call Bedpan Alley, the east side neighborhood that includes hospitals and a shelter on First Avenue. He checked on a homeless woman who sits in a chair facing Bellevue each day, rubbing his thumb against hers as she slept. A shoeless man was prone on the sidewalk. Bathe inquired about a can collector’s economic concerns. Business was slow.

“Are you a priest?” a woman on a bench asked Bathe.

“No, ma’am,” Bathe said. “I’m a friar.”

She introduced herself as Shonda. She was anxious about a meeting with her manager.

“You want to say a prayer for me?” she said.

“Put the phone down,” he said.

Bathe closed his eyes and prayed.

“Breathe,” he said.

“I’m going to breathe,” she said.

As he walked back to the hospital, his pager went off. “Cardiac Arrest,” it read, “10 West 36.”

“Somebody’s dying,” he said.

Bathe makes his way to the hospital from his hotel in midtown Manhattan.

Complete Article HERE!

Dying old, dying young

– death and ageism in the times of Greek myth and coronavirus

By

The loss of life from the spread of coronavirus has been on an enormous scale. In the USA more Americans have now died from COVID-19 than in the entire Vietnam war.

Notwithstanding some poignant and passionate speeches by particular individuals (notably New York Governor Andrew Cuomo), much of the discourse has focused on the economic, political and policy division, rather than grief for the victims.

This broadly sanguine response might be due to perceptions that it is mostly older people dying from coronavirus, although experts warn younger people can die too. Witness the relief at new reports that children under 10 have not accounted for a single transmission of the virus. The deaths of older people have been comparatively discounted, not the least because many were socially isolated even before the pandemic.

The Greeks of antiquity reflected on the death of the young and the old in some very creative mythical narratives. Greek myth reflects on and reminds us of some of the less attractive characteristics of human life and society, such as sickness, old age, death and war. In the ancient Greek world this made it harder to put old age and death into a corner and forget about it, which we tend to do.

Choosing when

Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad, actually has a choice in the timing of his life and death.

He can have a long life without heroic glory, back on the farm, or he can have a short life with undying fame and renown from his fighting at Troy. The fact that he chooses the latter makes him different from ordinary people like us.

Achilles’ heroism is fundamentally linked to his own personal choice of an early death. But it also means his desperate mother, the goddess Thetis, will have to mourn him eternally after seeing him for such a short time in life. Such is the pain for the loss of a child in war.

A play by the master Athenian dramatist Euripides is even more focused on young and old death. The play Alcestis was produced in Athens in 438 BC, making it the earliest surviving Euripidean play (about ten years before the plague at Athens).

In the play, the king of Thessaly – an appallingly self-interested person called Admetus – has previously done the god Apollo a favour, and so Apollo does Admetus a favour in return. He arranges for him to extend his life and avoid death in the short term, if he can find someone to take his place and die in his stead.

Admetus immediately asks his father or mother to die for him, based on the assumption that they are old and will presumably die soon anyway. But the father, Pheres, and his wife turn down Admetus, and so he has to prevail on his own wife, Alcestis, to die for him, which she agrees to do.

The story of the play is based around the day of her death and descent to the Underworld, with some rather comic twists and turns along the way. Death (Greek Thanatos) is a character in the play, and he is delighted to have a young victim, in Alcestis, rather than an old one. “They who die young yield me a greater prize,” he says.

The light of day

There is a particularly spiteful encounter between Admetus and his father on the subject of young and old death:

Admetus:

Yet it would have been a beautiful deed for you to die for your son, and short indeed was the time left for you to live. My wife and I would have lived out our lives, and I should not now be here alone lamenting my misery.

Father:

I indeed begot you, and bred you up to be lord of this land, but I am not bound to die for you. It is not a law of our ancestors or of Hellas that fathers should die for their children! … You love to look upon the light of day – do you think your father hates it? I tell myself that we are a long time underground and that life is short, but sweet.

The Alcestis of Euripides, and other Greek myths, remind us, should we ever forget, that love of looking upon the light of day is a characteristic of human existence, both for the young and the very old.

Complete Article HERE!