Here we are at the end of 2014, and you can feel that familiar buzz of hopeful anticipation. A new year is about to begin, and who doesn’t love to celebrate a new beginning, a new birth? But December 31 isn’t only about beginnings. It is a place to recognize life’s full circle. Ending meets beginning. Birth meets death. Birth gets all kinds of appreciation, but I’m here to suggest that there is much to be gained in acknowledging and even appreciating death as well.
As many of you know from my column on March 25, 2014, I lost my mother to cancer this year. Living through her final days was the most profoundly moving experience of my life so far. It fueled a passion in me to promote better preparedness and openness to navigating the end of life for ourselves and for those we love. Many others are working toward the same goal.
I followed the story of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard this fall with both heartache and admiration. During the last weeks of her life, Brittany decided to go public with her story of moving to Oregon in order to take advantage of their legal physician assisted suicide program. I found her decision both brave and generous. She turned her personal tragedy into a forum for advocacy for all people seeking control over their death.
Brittany Maynard’s story is part of a growing trend to break the silence about death and dying. Many recent articles and books are openly exploring the choices we have, or ought to have, and examining where our medical and cultural communities fall short when it comes to talking about death and caring for the dying.
Legally sanctioned physician assisted suicide, or “aid in dying,” is a long way off for most states. But we already have an excellent resource to help us maximize our quality of life at the end of life – hospice care. Hospice is both legal and universally available, but it is often misunderstood and sadly underutilized.
Last week, I met with Johneen Eckardt, who has been a local hospice volunteer for the last 10 years. She is a passionate advocate for better end of life care.
“It has to become safe to talk about [dying],” she said.
Eckardt described the reaction she gets when she tells people she is a hospice volunteer.
“They say hospice is a wonderful thing,” Eckardt said, but their body language betrays discomfort. “They always, physically, take a step back.”
I understand the reaction. When I was told last March that my mother could only be discharged from the hospital if she was signed up for hospice care, I panicked. Hospice meant dying, and dying was terrifying. What I learned, however, was that hospice really meant living as well as possible during the time Mom had left to live. Those days were filled with intensities of grief, but they were also, strangely, filled with moments of elevated understanding, connections, spiritual and emotional epiphanies, and even laughter.
People love to tell birth stories because the transition into life feels miraculous. The transition out of life holds wonders that are equally miraculous. Death, too, has a story to tell. With the help of institutions like hospice care, I hope that we will learn to listen to death’s story without fear or panic.
Along those lines, I took action last week to open a conversation in my household. I went to the information desk at Eastern Maine Medical Center and picked up a bunch of advance directives — documents that indicate your wishes if you should become unable to make medical decisions for yourself. It happened to be Christmas Eve, and the woman behind the desk handed me the forms with an elfish smile.
“These could be great stocking stuffers!”
The eight of us, ages 22 to 54, now have our advance directives in hand. Even more important, we have the memory of a great family conversation that followed the distribution of the forms. I am hoping that one thing we can do together as we enter this New Year is to face death rather than hide from it, to look it in the eye and be OK. I didn’t opt to use the advance directives as stocking stuffers. Still, I hope my children all know that as I handed them those forms, I was handing them a gift of empowerment and love.
You may pick up an advance directive at most medical institutions or you may download free forms from the Internet.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.