Talking About Death

Reflection by Josée Blanchet, 30 October 2016 

A few years ago, an uncle of mine died of a terminal illness. This uncle had indicated, like a lot of us do, that he should not be kept on life support and that he did not want aggressive medical intervention.  Yet, at the end of the illness, he ended up on a respirator, temporarily… so that he could be administered a treatment that had… a chance of working. While he was on this treatment, he became conscious for a moment, he could not speak but he gestured to his daughter that he wanted all the tubes off, pointing at them and shaking his head from left to right. His daughter explained that the tubes were temporary, just while they administered this treatment that had a good chance of working. 

The treatment did not work. The doctors then suggested a treatment that had a lot less chances of working than the first one, but it was something to try… At this point, one may think that my uncle’s will was not being respected, but then again the words I do not want to be kept on life support could be interpreted in so many different ways. His daughter thought that the respirator did not qualify as life support as long as there was an active engagement in treatment. But some brothers and sisters thought that what was happening couldn’t possibly be what he would have wanted… 

What is missing from those common medical directives is the spirit. Technical words don’t carry much weight under life and death circumstances. 

I’m sure you all know a similar story… It’s hard for the people around us to decide what those words mean unless they were spoken, contextualised, enrobed with tonality and intention, and shared in an exchange.  In other words, unless they were part of a conversation. So why do people so rarely have that conversation? 

We don’t talk enough about death in our modern society. It is such an important subject, not only because the act of dying needs to be prepared in practical terms, but because it needs to be prepared in spiritual terms. 

Stephen Jenkinson is an end of life guide who works at the Toronto Children Hospital and different hospices in Ontario. He is an advocate for the importance of dying well, of dying wise.  I will quote loosely a few of his reflexions about death: 

Death is so important because it’s the ultimate act of living. When you give your children life, you also give them death. Dying is inscribed in life, it is a dimension of life itself. How you carry within you the knowledge that you will die defines how well you carry life itself. Dying is an act of love. If you are a parent to children, or a wife or husband to a spouse, dying is the final act of being a parent, or the final act of being married. If you are a sibling, or a friend, then dying is the last gift you have to render as a sibling or a friend.   

Think of all the hard work that goes into preparing a wedding… Death is a much more important event… Not everyone will get married and life does not carry in itself that obligation, but everyone will die. Comme mon père le dit souvent: Ma fille, il n’y a rien qu’une chose qu’on sait pour de vrai dans le vie, pis c’est qu’on va tous mourir. It is the most fundamental unifying fact of humanity. Is one to leave this event to the last minute? 

We have to own our death. We have to craft it. So that when the time comes, we can live our death. Reflect on what you are learning from this wonderful voyage that is life. Think of how you are a link in the continuity of life. Meditate on that privileged position. You are a carrier of life itself. Visualize your transition. Visualize how your act of dying will influence your loved ones and ultimately, will influence humanity. As Unitarian Universalists, we act in the world. As we lay dying, we are still acting in the world, an act that caries as much meaning, perhaps more, than anything else we have done in our lives. 

Think about it. Talk about it. Dying could be the fullest expression of everything that we have learnt. 

Thinking about death, talking about death will not make our lives morbid. It will make our lives complete.