Reflections on “Final Gifts”: Permission to Die, Birth and Death, and the Value of Reconciliation

I found Final Gifts by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley to be a powerful insight into the lives of three different groups of people: nurses for the dying, the family and friends of the dying and the dying themselves. It looks at “Nearing Death Awareness,” or the increasing awareness one has when one is dying over a long period of time, the actual experience of it and what they need in order to die peacefully. Three concepts I felt really stood out to me and that I feel I can apply immediately in the future were the idea that the dying often need permission to die, the relationship between birth and death and the value of reconciliation and the role we can play in it.

It was helpful for me to acknowledge the truth that dying people often need permission to die; receiving it can provide a great amount of relief and the withholding of it can make the process of death longer and more challenging. This is likely due to what they are trying to communicate and why: “The dying often use the metaphor of travel to alert those around them that it is time for them to die. They also have a deep concern about the welfare of those they love, asking themselves, ‘Do they understand? Are they going to be alright?’[1] In the example of Ellen, her family struggled at first to understand that she was trying to communicate that she was dying to them. This increased the level of stress and anxiety for both Ellen and her family.  Once they realized that she was likely referring to heaven, they went in and comforted and affirmed her. “Ellen’s family provided what she needed by letting her know they understood the messages she was so desperately trying to give them-‘I am dying, it is time for my journey from this life, I need to know you understand and are ready; I need your permission to go.’”[2] While I have never witnessed this, I have heard stories from people about someone they love “constantly agitated towards the end.” I’ve also encountered people in homes who didn’t seem to make any sense and they were generally dismissed. This idea encourages me to approach people not only with a heart of compassion but with a belief that there is, perhaps, an understanding that can be reached.

Another idea I found helpful was the analogy between birth and death. As one nurse described, “I also feel strongly that, like birthing, dying can be an opportunity for the whole family to share positive experiences, rather than only sadness, pain and loss. That is the challenge of the work…”[3] In fact, both birth and death used to happen in the home until industrialization and the twentieth century hit; then birth became a procedure and death a failure at successful treatment.  Recently there has been some headway made in both these areas, and both birth and death are now often possible in the comfort of one’s home rather than in the often isolating and unfamiliar hospital. Consider the difference that this has made for births: “Family members present at delivery share a special bond with mother and child-a closeness born of sharing that powerful moment. The deeper their involvement and understanding, the likelier they are to come away with a sense of learning and growth.”[4] This same thing could be said for those who experience death alongside loved ones. Their deeper involvement leaves them with a sense that there were fully participatory in the end and the person dying is less lonely and fearful because they are surrounded by those who care for them. When I consider the growth and community that comes from birth I have to believe that the same is true for death and I see the value of community in times where people are facing a terminal illness.

I also learned that many times the most important thing for a person as they are nearing death is reconciliation.  “As death nears, people often realize some things feel unfinished or incomplete-perhaps issues that once seemed insignificant or that happened long ago. Now the dying person realizes their importance and wants to settle them.”[5] If this is request is understood people will often do what they can to assist the person but there are also times when the request is unclear, leaving the person upset or appearing in pain when they aren’t physically pained; rather they are suffering psychologically or emotionally. They desire peace, and to die peacefully they need either healing or reconciliation to occur in the relationship (often in the form of an apology or expression of gratitude). “Most dying people begin by listing their accomplishments, but they also will consider their disappointments-tasks not completed, opportunities missed, relationships broken or left to wither. As caregivers or friends, if we can help dying people conduct such reviews and heal damaged relationships, we can help them find peace.”[6] I saw this with my Father’s mother as she was nearing her own end. It was clear she wanted reconciliation with my mother and I tried to provide the best reassurances I could. That seemed to be a great comfort to her in those moments, as she was very fearful of death.

[1]Callanan, Maggie & Kelley, Patricia. (2012) Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. United States of America: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. Pg. 74

[2] Callanan & Kelley. Pg. 75

[3] Callanan & Kelley. Pg. 130

[4] Callanan & Kelley, Pg. 30

[5] Callanan & Kelley, Pg. 137

[6] Callanan & Kelley, Pg. 153

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Grief for the Dying and Mourning

It seems like terminal illness is a far more common thing that we realize. Perhaps because there’s a tendency for both the dying and the mourning to hide; they hide their illness or their loss, they mask their pain and so we think it far less common than it really is. There’s some similarities and differences between someone who has lost someone to a terminal illness and a person diagnosed with the illness but one thing they share is grief.

As the video, Living with Dying says, “Love and death are the two great gifts that are passed on, and usually they are passed on unopened…”[1] One son talked about how he knew his mother was going to die for three years and he thought he was prepared but he was wrong. The size of our grief, one could argue, is proportional to the amount of our love. The manifestation of that grief can either be physical, emotional or behavioral. Some of the more common physical symptoms I’ve heard mentioned is “…we often have a perceptual sense of unreality. Other people may actually appear to be father away from us than they are; they may appear small or dark. And there is generally an intense preoccupation with the image of the deceased, sometimes to the extent of experiencing an hallucination.”[2]

Emotionally, people could respond in alignment to previous readings on the 5 stages or go through a wide spectrum of responses. Anger towards the living by those diagnosed (thus antagonizing those closest to them) can push away those who are trying to help and leave the terminally ill in isolation. More unique to those left behind are possible feelings of guilt or hostility. Finally, you have the behavioral responses: “…we experience a marked inability to carry on the habits of customary living.”[3] For those experiencing loss, it could be due to the fact that it’s lost meaning now that the deceased is no longer there providing much of our purpose. For the diagnosed, facing the illness forces an evaluation of how to best use one’s time and to face the effects of the diagnosis.

Ultimately, to those who are grieving, the loss feels like an emergency. I’ve had my own friends talk about their frustration at the world continuing to move around them when this huge tragedy had occurred; I felt similarly when I went through my first major loss. Do these people not know how different the world is, I thought? Did they not feel the axis of my world shift… Similarly, the world of those facing a diagnosis seems the same. They face an invisibility where their illness is treated but they aren’t necessarily seen and those they love continue to live as they lived before. Meanwhile, the future they envisioned has been stolen. Even worse, as one man said in the Living with Dying video, “Many Americans I know have no support system and it’s due to the fact that the American family has become fragmented.”[4] Some don’t even have anyone to notice their life being stolen by a terminal diagnosis.

As Robert Neale writes, there is a close overlap between these experiences for the one who is experiencing the death: “The task of the bereaved is also the task of the dying… First, it means that the individual who knows or senses that he is dying is also himself bereaved… The second is that those who suffer their own loss have the same task as those who suffer the loss of someone else.”[5] Therefore, the greatest similarities are that the dying person experiences much of what the mourning person does, but the mourner does not understand the full state of the person facing a terminal diagnosis.

 

[1] “Living with Dying.”

[2] Neale, Robert. “Transformation By Grief.” Pg. 73

[3] Neale, Robert. “Transformation By Grief.” Pg. 74

[4] “Living with Dying.”

[5] Neale, Robert. “Transformation By Grief.” Pg. 83

An Honest Prayer

Oh Lord, my God, why do I struggle so soon? I knew such peace in the days leading into this. I do not doubt your provision, but I doubt your purpose for me. I cannot see a path forward. I pray, I read, I seek.

I hear you in these words. I know what you call me to but I don’t know what to do with them. I read Paul Kalanithi’s words and I feel every part of me respond: “The call to protect life-and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul-was obvious in its sacredness.”

I read and write about Christ and our call to cruciform love that is evident from Genesis to Revelations and I feel your pull. I’m listening, Abba. I rarely read books by Christian authors outside school but a family member recommended it in Texas and so, as I began my own launch into joblessness, I came across the words in The Hole in the Gospel: “Though painful, my period of unemployment was one of the richest spiritual times of my life.” And I’m a little afraid to hear you, but the words stood out.

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This quote from Frederick Buechner hit me in the gut. But my God, my Father… I am lost. How do I put my passion for you on a resume? How do I say, my Father called and so I came… in a cover letter?

I am at a loss, Lord. And so do I just wait? I’m such a silly child, I know. Only  a few days and I’m impatient, and yet Moses wandered the desert for decades. Patience. Trust. I wonder if he often heard from you… Or if it was only in the beginning, and then he just had to remind himself over and over, “I will not doubt, the Lord is with me…”

Father, I know that it is in this struggle that I grow in my depth of faith but where you can, root the Spirit and give me peace; provide me this comfort. Lord, give me a vision for what you want from me so I may serve you truly and faithfully. Continue to use my life as a testimony to your love and power. Amen.

 

Philippians 2:5-11 Exegesis

Text: Philippians 2:5-11 (NIV)

  1. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:” (2:5)
  2. Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;” (2:6)
  3. “rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (2:7)
  4. “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross! (2:8)
  5. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,” (2:9)
  6. “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” (2:10)
  7. “and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (2:11)

Theme/Paragraph Analysis

Paul’s entire purpose within this passage is to instruct the community on cruciform love; on how to relate to one another using Christ’s life as a framework for our life so we can begin to understand what cruciform love looks like in our day to day lives.

  1. In your relationships with one another, recognize Jesus in each other and be a reflection of Christ.
  2. Jesus, being God, considering his equality to God not something to be exploited for himself.
  3. Despite his divine glory and equality, Jesus made nothing of himself by being made in human likeness to serve man.
  4. Thus being man, he lived a lifetime of humility culminating in obedience to death on the cross. (2:8)
  5. God responded to Jesus’ super abasement by raising Jesus up and giving him the highest of high places and the highest of names. (2:9)
  6. That, at his name, all of the universe would bow in adoration. (2:10)
  7. And everyone will worship Jesus Christ as Lord because of his sacrificial love, which brings glory to God, his Father. (2:11)

 

 

Historical Analysis

Although it may not be historical, in reading the New Testament it would be difficult not to see that the book of Philippians is a letter of love, thanksgiving, hope and friendship. It was written to those in Philippi which was named for Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, when Augustus re-founded the city as a Roman colony under his own patronage in 31 B.C.[1] Because it was an emperor’s city, there was a greater emphasis on Rome adulation, local deities and the cult of the emperor. “There is no evidence of a Jewish synagogue, though there appears to have been a very small Jewish community (cf. Acts 16:13, 16).”[2] The city itself was neither large nor small but was ideally located for trade via land and sea.

“Paul’s letter confirm that he experienced suffering in Philippi (1:29-30; Thess. 2:1-2) and that women played an important role in the church (Phil. 4:2-3).”[3] Acts reports that Lydia was his first convert in Philippi and reports her baptism as well as her home serving as a house church. As for suffering, this was something the Philippians also shared with Paul because it was perceived that the gospel being shared was un-Roman and targeted Gentiles.[4] This lead to ongoing targeting of followers. “Yet the Philippian believers were both generous and joyful in their affliction (2 Cor. 8:2).”[5] Paul wrote this letter while imprisoned, which means that there is a good possibility that the Philippians were as much of an encouragement to Paul as he meant to be to them.

Some focus on the possibility that this may be a “unified” letter; that is, the combination of several letters into one. Others have explored whether the nature of the relationship between Paul and the Philippians was more friendship or perhaps patron-client. When read in its entirety though, one thing becomes clear: “For the letter to the Philippians, while perhaps occasioned by the need to give thanks for a gift, is focused much more on the need for those who are in Christ to live a cruciform life in the face of internal and external challenges to the gospel.”[6] Rooted in Christ’s story, Paul speaks from his suffering to the heart of another suffering people with great encouragement.

Verse Analysis

1. Paul starts his instruction in Philippians 2:5 (NIV) “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:”[7] Thus, in the first part of the sentence he makes it clear that the verses following this are regarding how the Philippians should relate to one another.   The second part of the sentence requires a little bit more in-depth analysis; it experiences a variety of translations in Bibles due to its own lack of clarity. “Lit., “have this attitude among you which was also in Christ Jesus,” The second en with the dative is understood as an equivalent of the simple dative (expressing possession…) But it is also possible to render the verse, “Have for one another that attitude which you also have in Christ Jesus.”[8] If it is the first interpretation, we are meant to understand that the Philippians should possess the attitude of Christ; in the second interpretation it is more of a union between Christ and the Philippians. It is less about the individual mimicking Christ and more about the transformation of the Christian community within Philippi itself.

In order to gain a little bit more perspective, we can take the broader Pauline theology into consideration by looking at II Corinthians 5:16-17 (NAB) “Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”[9] It is clear in this verse that Paul believes that whoever is in Christ is transformed; not merely imitating Christ but becoming like Jesus. “Thus we may paraphrase: Think among yourselves what you think in Christ-i.e. think of each other the way you think about Christ; regard each other from the same perspective.”[10] I am inclined to think what Paul saw as the implications of his sentence are that by being in Christ Jesus you are dying to the old ways; you would see others and treat them the way Jesus would have seen them and treated them.

2. The following verses were most likely answering a question that Paul foresaw: What does that look like? So he reminds them by using a hymn, and the first half “begins with God and descends to the low point, death. Each of its 3 active verbs focuses on a moment in the deathward movement toward obedience.”[11] Before we examine the trajectory of the first half of the verses, the really extraordinary thing we need to appreciate is specifically what Paul is saying in the first part of the sentence of Philippians 2:6 (NIV) Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;”[12] namely Christ’s pre-existence.

“Philippians 2 is the earliest passage in the Pauline literature to raise in our minds the serious questions about the pre-existence of Christ. Already Paul has made statements implying a change in status on Christ’s part, notably in 2 Cor 8:9, where Christ, who was rich, became poor for our sake-this is the language of incarnation. Now we find Christ, who was in the form of God, emptying himself taking the form of a slave, and becoming man…”[13] This is tremendously powerful. Jesus wasn’t formed first as a man with God qualities but rather was a being whose very nature is God and equal to God. This was written by a monotheistic Jew who believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah and was passionate about the Holy Spirit. In fact, the translation “…of divine status: Lit., “originally being in the form of God; having as a possession the form of God.”[14] Morphe theou, or “form of God” was, according to Fitzmyer, meant to express the external appearance of Jesus; his body. This is a radical and countercultural idea for the monotheistic Jewish people who were without a Trinitarian theology.

Understanding that Jesus resided in such a form, Paul wanted to make it clear that his divine status wasn’t something that Jesus clung to or literally, “considered it not a thing-to-be-clutched[-at].” The word harpagmos is rare…it has been understood actively as an “act of plundering” (Vg rapina)…”[15] The intention of juxtaposing this word with Jesus’ divinity is most likely because of how such authority and power would have been viewed by people, particularly in that time. Kings would set themselves apart and shore up their authority, which would be passed down often only through their own lineage. It was, indeed, something to treat as “miser’s booty” if you were of this world. But Jesus was not and Paul wants to remind us that we are, again, to recognize Jesus in one another and be a reflection of him.

3. We begin the descent with Philippians 2:7 (NIV) “rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”[16] Jesus, having the form of God, made himself nothing. Here we have radical transformation occurring. “The heart of the matter is the change of roles from divine authority to slave status, from the highest thinkable role to the lowest known.”[17] Keck points out that this is a metaphorical divesting and not a metaphysical divestment of Jesus’ divinity; it is a status change rather than a change of essence. Fitzmyer clarifies exactly what Jesus divests himself of: “Jesus, in becoming man, divested himself of the privilege of divine glory; he did not empty himself of divinity, but of the status of glory to which he had a right…”[18] Instead of being served, as he had every right to be, Jesus chose to become a servant (or slave) to all. Furthermore, he was like all men; although he performed miracles there was nothing extraordinary about his body; he grew up like all boys, learned and acquired skills, bled and died like any other man. His external shape, as he appeared to men in the days of his flesh (Heb 5:7), was that of a man.”[19]

     4. “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross! Philippians 2:8 (NIV) [20] This is the second level on the descent of Jesus. “In the self-humbling we should see the sweep of Jesus’ life as a whole, not particular incidents in it. It is not clear who is being obeyed here-the cosmic powers or God. Perhaps it is enough to say that he acted as one who was obedient rather than as one who called for obedience…”[21] The entire life of Jesus’ is one of humility. Fitzmyer proposes that it is his devotion to the Father that leads to his heroism; I propose that Jesus’ devotion and humility are born out of faithful love for a people who most often showed faithless love to him in return.

When in the Mount of Olives before his death, it says in Luke 22:42-43 (NAB) that Jesus prays, “saying ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.’ [And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him.”[22] Before this moment, Jesus laments for his people in Luke 19:41 (NAB) “As he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it,”[23] Jesus actually wept over the fate of the city of Jerusalem. These actions seem to speak of the deep and abiding love that God has for his people and the covenantal relationship maintained with us, whether he walks as a man or not. Furthermore, asking for the cup to be taken from him doesn’t mean he wishes to deny the opportunity of salvation to his people. No, Jesus’ humility is most manifested in the moment when he is obedient to actual death; allowing himself to be reaped as a sacrifice for many.

5. Having been humbled as deeply as one can go, surrendering even to death, how does the Father respond to the Son? Paul writes in Philippians 2:9 (NIV) “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,”[24] The literal translation for what God did is actually superexalted, and according to Fitzmyer, “The hymn refers to the ascension of Christ (cf. Eph 4:10). It is “Johannine” in its immediate passage from the cross to exaltation and un-Pauline in its passing over the resurrection. The Father has exalted Christ to a status that contrasts superabundantly with his condition of abasement.”[25] Just as we saw that the hymn was all-inclusive of the humbling life of Jesus, I do not believe it skips over the resurrection as much as it assumes it is part of the trajectory from death to the highest place where Jesus is given the name above all names. It is a necessary component. Lastly, his given “…name is Kyrios, which appears at the end of the hymn; this LXX equivalent of Adonai (my Lord) was used for the ineffable tetragrammaton YHWH. It is the name that surpasses all celestial beings.”[26]

6. Paul goes on in Philippians 2:10 (NIV) to say, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,”[27] making this an experience not just for earth but for all the universe. “…In an act of religious devotion. The hymn alludes to Is 45:23 and transfers to the new Kyrios the adoration given there to Yahweh. It is a universal and cosmic adoration paid to a sovereign.”[28] For what reason does all of creation bow to him? We read in Is 45:22-25 (NAB), “Turn to me and be safe, all you ends of the earth, for I am God; there is no other! By myself I swear, uttering my just degree and my unalterable word: To me every knee shall bend; by me every tongue shall swear, Saying, “Only in the Lord are just deeds and power. Before him in shame shall come all who vent their anger against him. In the Lord shall be the vindication and the glory of all the descendants of Israel.”[29] Thus through his statement, Paul alludes to the fact that Jesus fulfills the words spoken by God in Isaiah; words that are unalterable and true.

7. Paul finishes the sentence in Philippians 2:11 (NIV) by proclaiming: “and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.”[30] Where the first half emphasized Jesus’ life of humility (or downward trajectory of humiliation), the second half of the hymn was used by Paul to show the reversal of that trajectory. “God highly exalted him (NEB “raised him to the heights”) and bestowed on him the name above all names. These 2 verbs are 2 aspects of the same act. The self-humbling is answered by the exaltation by God, and the role of slave is answered by the role of master. The name is Lord (lit. “master”)… The entire cosmic power structure under whose authority Christ humbled himself now confesses he is Lord.”[31] Although it is as Keck describes, that Christ is now exalted by God and confessed as Lord, it is not a rivalry to the Father.

In fact, as it is described by Fitzmyer, “his voluntary abasement and the acknowledgement paid to him by creation in his rewarded status bring honor to the Father… This essential profession of early Christian faith in Jesus forms the climax of the hymn.”[32] The actual passion that lies within the story of Jesus’ life of humility, his sacrifice and the glory he brings to the Father when he is hyperexalted might distract from the original intention of the verses: to instruct the community on their interactions with one another. In the simplest way, Paul encourages them to be a community built on a foundation of cruciform love; in all their relationships to be so deeply rooted in Christ and have Christ so deeply rooted in them that their life reflects the life of Jesus to others. Not just in principles or teachings but in the shape of our daily life.

 

Works Cited

“Philippians 2 NIV.” Bible Reference. Bible Gateway, n.d. Retrieved August 19, 2016, from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+2&version=NIV.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J. “The Letter to the Philippians.” The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Vol. 2. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968. 247-53. Print.

Gorman, M. J. (2004). Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul & His Letters. United States of America: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Print.

Hooker, Morna D. “The Letter to the Philippians.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994. 467-550. Print.

Keck, Leander E. “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians.” Ed. Charles M. Laymon. The Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 1971. 845-55. Print.

St. Mary’s Press: College Study Bible (NAB). (2007). Winona, MN: Christian Brothers Publications. Wright, N. T. (1994).

 

[1] Gorman, M. J. (2004). Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul & His Letters. Pg. 413

[2] Gorman, 414

[3] Gorman, 415

[4] Gorman, 417

[5] Gorman, 417

[6] Gorman, 418

[7] “Philippians 2 NIV.” n.d. Bible Reference. Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+2&version=NIV.

[8] Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J. “The Letter to the Philippians.” The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Vol. 2. 1968. Pg. 250.

[9] St. Mary’s Press: College Study Bible (NAB). (2007). Winona, MN: Christian Brothers Publications. Pg. 1755

[10] Keck, Leander E. “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians.” The Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. 1971. Pg. 850.

[11] Keck, 850.

[12] “Philippians 2 NIV.” n.d. Bible Reference. Bible Gateway

[13] Hooker, Morna D. “The Letter to the Philippians.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. 1994. Pg. 502.

[14] Fitzmyer, 250.

[15] Fitzmyer, 250-1.

[16] “Philippians 2 NIV.” n.d. Bible Reference. Bible Gateway

[17] Keck, 850

[18] Fitzmyer, 251

[19] Fitzmyer, 251

[20] “Philippians 2 NIV.” n.d. Bible Reference. Bible Gateway

[21] Keck, 850

[22] St. Mary’s Press: College Study Bible (NAB). (2007). Pg. 1571.

[23] St. Mary’s Press: College Study Bible (NAB). (2007). Pg. 1566.

[24] “Philippians 2 NIV.” n.d. Bible Reference. Bible Gateway

[25] Fitzmyer, 251

[26] Fitzmyer, 251

[27]“Philippians 2 NIV.” n.d. Bible Reference. Bible Gateway

[28] Fitzmyer, 251

[29] St. Mary’s Press: College Study Bible (NAB). (2007). Pg. 1082-3,

[30] “Philippians 2 NIV.” n.d. Bible Reference. Bible Gateway

[31] Keck, 851

[32] Fitzmyer, 251

Reflections on Viorst and Dying

In “The ABC of Dying” Judith Viorst writes, “For how can we live as fully conscious animals, the only creatures on earth that know they will die? How can we, in the chilling words of Ernest Becker’s great book The Denial of Death, endure the awareness that we are “food for worms”?”[1] It is a provoking question and one that philosophers, theologians, psychologists, doctors, artists, and many others have searched for answers to over the millennia.

The theory of unconscious denial of death that Freud proposed, making the yawning unknown that awaits us on the other side of death possible to be ignored, is a popular choice by many. We distract ourselves with other more “manageable” anxieties and block off parts of life in an effort to convince ourselves that we can exert some sort of control over the future. Yet it is only in the juxtaposition to death, as she points out through the words of poets, physicists and theologians, that we fully see and experience life. The character from Memento Mori probably best summed up the sentiment in this, “If I had my life over again…I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death… should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.”[2]

Viorst was forced to face her own mortality when she lost three women she was close to in the span of six weeks. Although she had once feared flying; it was no longer an issue. She realized staying off airplanes wouldn’t guarantee her immortality. Certainly, the best course of action in her mind would be to learn how best to die, if one must go through the experience of doing so. Perhaps this was her mechanism for coping with death.

She examines death in the abstract and the applied, using the example of Ivan Ilych. “The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself…”[3] Full of memories, experiences, emotions, joys and grief. And in the example, Ivan is further isolated because his community won’t acknowledge his impending death. Viorst writes that this mindset against speaking of death is being challenged in more modern times through individuals like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote on the five stages she sees people pass through towards death.

The first stage is said to be denial, followed by the anger/envy stage.  Commonly asked within this second stage is, “Why me?” The third is bargaining, something offered if they can have just a little bit more time. The fourth is depression over present and future losses. A need for others to be present and sit with them in this time is called out. Last is acceptance; this is not a hallelujah moment but an absence of emotion and struggle. Instead of resisting their end they meet it “with a certain degree of quiet expectation.”[4] Not everyone makes it to this phase, or should, according to Kubler-Ross. Dr. Edwin Shneidman disagreed strongly based on his own substantial experiences with the dead and dying, saying: “…I reject the notion that human beings, as they die, are somehow marched in lock step through a series of stages of the dying process. On the contrary… the emotional states, the psychological mechanisms of defense, the needs and drives, are as variegated in the dying as they are in the nondying…”[5] Whereas Kubler-Ross felt that acceptance was often the implied end of the journey, Shneidman pointed out more often than not life was abandoned to death without any real readying, leaving loose ends. I have yet to have the breadth of experience with those in the midst of dying to be to discern for myself whose theory might be more accurate but I certainly think the knowledge of both helps me to be better equipped for whatever state I might identify a dying person to be in.

Viorst reflected on the ways three of her close friends chose to handle their death, and on the increasing interest in assisted suicide in society today, or even those like her friend who spend their time with the people they love the way they want to and then end it on their own terms. “The wish not to suffer, to stay in charge, to be remembered by loved ones the way they were motivates some to choose the hour of their death.”[6] While I understand our society’s propensity to run from suffering, it softly rings of the warnings I heard in the book A Brave New World, in which there is a society that avoids any pain, suffering or discomfort at the cost of maturity, intimacy, faith and intellectual depth. Interestingly, she points out later that Philippe Aries studied the history of death and “the concept of the ‘good death’ has been redefined, so that instead of its being a conscious, expected, ritualized departure, as once it was, a good death today ‘corresponds exactly to what used to be the accursed death’: Sudden death.”[7] Why, as a society, do we fear the death our ancestors hoped for and long for a death that was once viewed as a curse?

There’s another section of the dying population who wouldn’t take their lives yet also don’t view death as an enemy. “Death becomes a friend. It offers the chance to lay their burden down, whether the burden they yearn to lay down is the agony of a last illness; the helplessness, uselessness, loneliness of old age; the sufferings, at any age, attendant upon an unendurable loss…”[8] There are endless reasons why one might be ready to hand over the endless drudgery of their current existence for the hope of whatever death might offer. They don’t flee life, but recognize its inevitable end. One thing that Kaufmann postulates might make this easier is that we have a project of our own that we’ve seen to fruition; that we’ve in essence beat death in one place if we cannot beat it at retaining life.

This may be why some people experience such transformation near their death. Eissler even proposes: “The full awareness of each step that leads closer to death, the unconscious experience of one’s own death up to the last second which permits awareness and consciousness, would be the crowning triumph of an individually lived life.”[9] This is where we see the meek demonstrate courage and bravery or the shy become forward and outspoken. Their final moments are their last chance to be the person that they perhaps always saw themselves as becoming but were never brave enough to allow themselves to actualize within their day to day lives.

Immortality is the only way to counteract death, and this can be done through several ways. One is religion, which “Freud argues that such religious beliefs are illusions built up by man to make his helplessness in this world endurable. He writes that just as children depend on their parents to protect them, so anxious adults depend on gods and God.”[10] Another option is through nature, through the fact that we are part of an earth that continues on long after we do. We are made up of that ancient material and will merge back with it when we are dust. A third option would be through works or acts that influence future humanity; we see things like this in the great structures built, sculptures, works of art and literature, the rise and fall of nations, etc. Lastly, there is the biological continuation through progeny or even just humanity in general. While I can’t agree with Freud in that God is an illusion, I certainly see the drive for immortality in the behaviors of people daily. They want to leave a legacy, to be remembered, to have impacted the world. Perhaps this goes back to what Kauffman was saying. If a person has the sense they’ve achieved one of these levels of immortality, perhaps it makes it easier to go with death, feeling like they’ve already defeated it.

[1] Viorst, Judith. Necessary Losses. “The ABC of Dying,” pg. 306

[2] Viorst, 306

[3] Viorst, 309

[4] Viorst, 310

[5] Viorst, 311

[6] Viorst, 315

[7] Viorst, 320

[8] Viorst, 316

[9] Viorst, 319

[10] Viorst, 321