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

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