How prepared people are to cope with the dying process and witness death have stress-filled implications that may affect emotional health during the grieving process and beyond--contributing to physical health concerns such as digestive disorders, sleep disturbances, and general lack of energy that can develop.
Everyone approaches how they think about life, death, and health in their own unique way, yet there’s no doubt that our families, societies, marketplaces, personal knowledge, beliefs, and spirituality often have an influence on how we take care for ourselves from cradle to grave, sort-of speak. These influencers may or may not lend to our preparedness to face death at any time, as dying is something we generally don’t wish to contemplate; therefore, we don’t talk much about it with each other.
Naming Death. In her top-selling book, published 2018: With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial, by Dr. Kathryn Mannix (who is a physician specializing in palliative care, hospice, and cognitive behavior therapy for thirty years) writes about naming death. She states: Notice how often we hear euphemisms like ‘passed’, ‘passed away’, ‘lost’, in our conversations and in the media. She then asks readers these questions: How can we talk about dying, plan our care or support those we love during dying, theirs or ours, if we are not prepared to name death? She makes another point about our avoidance by asking if you or your family avoid the D-words? Contemplation of one’s own death can be emotionally complex generating fear of dying, anxiety over ceasing to exist, sadness of being separated from loved ones, and even jealousy of those who will survive without them.
“It is simply impossible to guess what another person means when they are considering their mortality. In palliative care, we have learned to make no assumptions: we ask. The interesting thing is that people are able and willing to answer, and when they share that burden, they often discover from within themselves new insights and ideas that help them to cope.” -Dr. Kathryn Mannix, Author of With The End In Mind
Please watch this video as she talks about her education campaign and why she wrote this book to help people understand dying and not to be so afraid: Read this book and you'll be better prepared for life as well as death.
How we think and interpret our emotions about dying or witnessing death can affect our health and those of others around us. Dying is a stealth factor of health—I say this because while we’re alive, nature and many say their God, has afforded we humans the ability to exert a high degree of personal control over our bodies and minds. Yet, often we don’t have any control or choice regarding how or when we will die—e.g. it can be of old age or a sudden accident. From the moment we are born we start using life up until our bodies become deceased. We not only need to be aware of how our bodies work to keep us alive and be giving our bodies what they need, but we need to be talking about end-of-life issues as we do the living of life issues and not feel uncomfortable or burdening about it.
The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival. -Aristotle
I so agree with Kathryn Mannix that dying and death should not be a taboo subject. After all, our thoughts, feelings and beliefs about death are important to our spirituality and wellness, in my opinion. Around us, every second of every day someone or something alive dies in this world. If we do not witness it ourselves, we frequently hear about it on the nightly news or read about it in the media, or encounter someone—e.g. a friend, coworker, or acquaintance who is grieving a death. In its wake, death touches the hearts and minds of those living who will be surviving and grieving from this experience. Death, as is being alive, is a common denominator in all our lives so we can and should help each other cope with it better and be healthier for it. Especially within our own families and circles of friends, by not denying or avoiding talk of the subject and sugar coating our words. The only way to plan for care or support those we love during dying, theirs or ours, is to prepare by talking about it.
Perhaps, if we talk about it and tell our stories about dying and death, like we do with our stories about living and life, people will become more passionate about the preciousness of being alive and caring for all life itself. We can also strive to show more compassion towards each other every day as this lifetime and what we do within-it in comparison to eternity, is important, can be difficult, and is short.
Our lives are but specks of dust falling through the fingers of time. Like sands of the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. -Socrates
In this spirit, I’ve been reflecting on memories of my Mother and Father knowing how deeply fortunate I am to have been closely living near both parents—I usually communicated with them daily throughout my entire life. Late last year, each of them died from two different types of cancer they had been struggling with just four months apart from each other. I was present at their bedsides when they transitioned from this life—Dad first, then Mom. An extra difficult thing to accept was that my Dad lived well into his nineties, but Mom was much younger, to the tune of twenty-two years younger and she had previously survived heart bypass. They had been married for over fifty years.
My Mom had been my Dad’s primary caretaker as he aged within our family. She was grieving over his recent death while struggling with her own developing health issue that morphed into metastatic breast cancer very quickly. This disease was shocking in its rise and body weakening that brought about a hastened ending of my Mother’s life. She and my family were rendered helpless in short order as this ruthless cancer rapidly took over her body. Modern medicine and cancer treatments failed to stop its ravaging assault. Witnessing the dying process adds to the difficulty of the death experience if we’re not somewhat mentally and spiritually prepared to see it. Losing a loved one is harsh on our emotions and has an impact on our health afterwards—it’s both mentally and physically taxing as we grieve.
In the aftermath…As a daughter of these two wonderful and beautiful people, what’s helped immensely with the overwhelming grief I’ve felt has been the pre-planning and caring actions that my parents took many years prior to their own deaths. They made their own instructional plans and burial arrangements according to their wishes while they were still healthy. They did it lovingly to spare me and my family members from having to make too many difficult decisions while grieving--so that we may focus more on ourselves emotionally through what they knew would be a stressful and painful loss. It is a true gift they gave their family in order to help ease our hurting, in any way they could, after their dying. This is the exemplary people my parents were and typical of why they were my greatest teachers and are so precious and loved.
My family and I are truly grateful for the hospice professionals that my parents chose to help them and us during the difficulty of facing their deaths. Companion Hospice & Palliative Care of Maricopa has some of the most dedicated, loving and caring professionals that helped ease my parents’ transitions with their services, but they also talked with me and my family about the dying process. We didn’t know what to expect and they held our hands while educating and comforting us through the various stages of death. I know that helped ease my Mom’s anxiety when she was dying as she had just been through the dying process with my Dad too. I am nearly 56 years of age and have never witnessed someone dying before, let alone the distress of it being my own parents. I cannot express enough how grateful I feel for these remarkable, wonderful people who helped me and my family in our personal time of need. They taught me a lot about the need and value of end-of-life care and support.
It seems unfair that the world can’t just stop for a bit and take a breather when our loved ones die and we’re mourning, doesn’t it? I feel compelled to write and share more of what I learned in future articles and group discussions. I also want to hear other people’s stories about their experiences with death in a supportive and educational community that can be helpful to others--those who are preparing and those who are grieving.
I know I’m not alone or unique in this feeling as others have gone through this too with the death of a loved one. In this universe, life relentlessly moves onward regardless of our bereavement needs and desire for the world to stop turning while we mourn. On a personal note, it really hurts to be at this segment of life, and I haven’t spoken a lot, or deeply, about the loss of my dearly beloved parents except to my family circle. In the months leading up to their deaths and together with my family we experienced the process of their dying as I mentioned earlier. I was present with my parents daily during their hospice care and I was present when each one of them took their last breaths.
Things my parents taught me about dying and death:
- In childhood, my parents often sat my sister and I down around our family’s dining table to have what I call “life talks”. Mom and Dad did not sugar-coat talks about the birds and the bees; God and the devil—as well as other religious beliefs and bible study; discussions about right and wrong; discussions about truth and dishonesty; and much more. They let us talk too as children and ask them questions about deep stuff, including dying. They wanted us to be mentally prepared as possible if there was a sudden death.
- Both of my parents were forced to ponder dying and death many times throughout their lives. We talked about it as a family on many occasions. One time it came up when I was a teenager while my family was living overseas. My parents filed legal paperwork for guardianship of my sister and I with some close family friends they trusted to raise us in their absence should they both get killed and we survived. When my Mother and Father did die recently, our family was in a position to have a complete understanding of how they thought about their own deaths because they’ve talked about it and prepared for it during many different life-stages my family has gone through—knowing their wishes were met has been comforting.
- My Dad said funerals are for the living, not for the dead. The time to show your honor, care, and love for someone is while they’re living not after they’re dead.
- Death often comes with no rhyme or reason as to its “why” or timing. My Mom once told me she hated the suffering of “death”, not only for the deceased but for the living that survived the deceased. She didn’t understand why there’s got to be such a thing. She was a believer in God, yet, struggled with this reality just as many people do. My Mom could see the dark side of life and bad characters and she protected her family like a BOSS from those threats even when we couldn’t see them.
- Both of my parents joked about death at times. Mom especially tried to inject lighthearted humor about herself by instructing her family to really make sure she’s dead before burying her advising us to make sure that she’s not just in a coma first, okay! As laughter can help induce healing, laughter to can help ease pain. Both of my parents had a good sense of humor most of their lives.
I could go on and on about my parents, but the point I feel that’s important to reiterate here is that the difficulty and stress we experience when a loved one dies can be softened a degree by how we’re able to reflect on that person’s life, the quality of the relationship we shared, and how well we really understood that person’s thoughts and beliefs. By being able to focus ourselves on having had more positive memories versus negative memories to discuss with the dying in final days, brings a measure of peace to the dying process as well. That only comes when you truly know a person well while they were living life through talking, sharing, communicating, visiting, taking an interest in their thoughts and feelings about the heavier life-matters such as death and dying.
Here are some other thoughts I wish to express on this subject of dying and death:
- Some people come to know more about their family members after they are deceased then they ever knew about them while they were living. Take the time as a family to share each other’s lives often, not just every now and then—Grandparents, parents, children, siblings, etc. that move away or grow apart. It takes effort, but it’s the kind of effort that really matters in the end to people in this life and to their survivors. Families need to talk and take care of each other through health and sickness—for lifelong.
- Parents need to help their children learn and grow to grasp the more difficult aspects of living so that if they are faced with a sudden death experience it doesn’t devastate them and mess them up for life. Like I said earlier in this article, my parents gave me the gift of their time, teaching, and love which has always made a huge impact on my life and the way I turned out, sort-of-speak. I also gave them that same dedication from myself because I wanted too—I love them, these are the people that raised me up. I didn’t dump my parents as soon as I was old enough to leave home and rarely see or speak with them except on holidays. No, we remained close and they were a priority in my life as I was in theirs because we truly loved each other. Now that they’ve died, I take comfort from knowing them so well and those thoughts and reminders of their feelings about life and death do bring me relief as I continue to grieve their absence in my life.
- Ease the burden for your family by talking about your wishes surrounding your own death. It’s difficult to think about it and it’s not pleasant to contemplate but it’s a loving thing to do and don’t put it off. No matter our age, a sudden accident causing death can leave spouses, children, parents and other loved ones traumatized with grief and devastated. The shock can feel unbearable to them but understanding what your thoughts about such a thing happening and your own death helps your surviving family tremendously as they grasp at dealing with your loss.
- Seek support for your loved ones and yourself when they are dying from terminal illness such as palliative care, hospice care. Many people have never witnessed the dying process or seen another human being die. These professionals help your dying loved one with care and compassion and will help prepare and comfort your entire family through the various stages of death. I wish the rest of the medical world could adopt and deliver the same level of care. Unfortunately, in our healthcare system today, where profits and pharmaceutical peddling have become a central focus, many healthcare professionals are losing their compassion and care within a system that doesn’t allow much for it. I don’t believe that’s why many doctors and nurses get into the medical field, they get into the medical field because they do care and have compassion for the sick and dying. Also, too many elderly people are placed in nursing care facilities or assisted living facilities and neglected by their families. For those neglectful people out there all I can say to you is this: Have you heard of Karma?
- Continue to tell stories and share memories of the lives of your loved ones after they’ve died. You think about them and miss them every day for the rest of your life and that’s a good thing, because of your love they will still dwell here in many hearts.
RESOURCES. Here are some recommended resource links for anyone who is going through the grieving process after the death of a loved one:
Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief by David Kessler
Types of Grief: Yes, There’s More Than One by What’s Your Grief?
Dying Matters-Let’s Talk About It Podcast
With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial, by Kathryn Mannix
I See Dead People: Dreams and Visions of the Dying | Dr. Christopher Kerr | TEDxBuffalo
Closing Thoughts...Life and death are two binding aspects of nature and the environment that ALL living things do have in common—from plants and insects to animals and humans. As in the large scheme of the universe, all life here has a beginning and an end. I have come to view striving to stay healthy as a “quality of life issue” more so than a “longevity of life issue” during these two points in time--being able to move our bodies freely, maintaining physical and mental energy, to enjoy our lives with as little illness and pain as possible until we die and reach eternity. Alongside conversations about wellness, I believe it’s important to talk about dying and not feel uncomfortable or burdening to others by doing so. By facing the subject early with our loved ones and planning for our end-of-life care and support, we can help each other cope better with dying and death—preparedness helps us emotionally to possess more peacefulness and calm when this time comes. Meanwhile, we can live healthier joyful and fearless lives this way.
Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it. -Haruki Murakami
It is not length of life, but depth of life. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
By Judith Garner, Certified Health Coach
Helping people stay healthy inside & out!