Managing Mortality

Being MortalMy husband and I just finished a book I highly recommend to you, no matter what stage of life you are in. It is called “Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande, and it opened my eyes to a great many facts and opened my mind to more questions than I can count.

You see, he doesn’t tell you specifically what to do in those times in our lives when we face mortality in ourselves or in those we love…but he asks the questions that we should all be asking ourselves, and in a way that respects the countless points of view we all have.

Dr. Gawande illustrates these points of view through a series of stories, and through his stories, you learn about how mortality has changed in our country, just as aging has changed. To a great degree, we rarely die “at home” any longer, and much more often our last moments of life are in the hands of professional, but distanced, medical personnel and in the grip of the machinery of “last resort” treatment that leaves us feeling cold, isolated and perhaps a bit like a member of the Borg Collective from “Star Trek, the Next Generation.”

Read the book. Then have the conversations with your family that may be very hard to initiate or continue. Use those same “emotional constructs” I recommend for child rearing to prepare you and your family for the far more difficult situations to come. Don’t wait until death is in the next room, hushing communication and tying tongues with fear, guilt or sorrow. Open the door to communication today so that it is more possible to open again when the time arrives to put into action the preferences and directives you only talked about before.

Dr. Gawande asks the very important questions that should be at the forefront of all aging or end of life conversations, “What is important to you? What is most important to try to keep in your life? What is most important to try to include in your death?”

You may think you know the answers to these questions, but as his stories illustrate so vividly, we don’t unless we ask, listen to the answers, and ask again as the terrain of aging changes our loved ones. Don’t wait until senility sets in and confusion or loss of memory makes it difficult to express what is most important to them. If you wait too long, you may miss your chance.

This book has changed how my husband and I look at aging, at terminal illness, at hospice care, and most importantly, at death. It is an amazingly different experience to facilitate a “good death” for yourself or your loved ones than to say goodbye with regret or guilt that they had a “bad death.”

Our culture doesn’t like to talk about it, and you and I are the only ones who can change that. So do it. Consider it a first step down a road that we build together, that leads to people who are as in control of their aging and deaths as possible. It is good work.

My husband and I are the kind of people who feel called to make a difference, and although we do not know yet what form this will take in our lives, our volunteerism, and our philanthropy, we are both now thinking about how aging and death can be made better. You just never know where it will lead us.

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