Each death is unique

There is something intensely personal about dying. No matter how often I’ve been privileged to observe the death of a person, there is nothing routine or normal about the process. Each death is unique.

I’ve been thinking about that because I have friends at various points in their struggles with cancer and though cancer might not be the cause of their deaths, the disease is significant enough that it brings a deep awareness of mortality.

I remember, many years ago, when a member of our church was admitted to Hospice House and then later released as his health had become too good to require the level of care that the house provides.He was rather proud to say that he “flunked out of hospice house.” He didn’t live forever. He did one day die, but there was a period of grace in which his family got to enjoy him and one another in some unexpected bonus time.

That sense of a connection between the process of education and the process of dying is a topic that comes up when I visit those who are bring the end of their lives. Not long ago, a member of our congregation described being admitted to Hospice House to me this way: “I guess I graduated today.”

There was another person, who I visited several times in the last weeks of his life who seemed less aware that he was dying. He would tell me, “I’m getting better and should be going home soon.” He wasn’t referring to heaven as his eternal home, from what I could tell. His wife and other family members confirmed my sense that he never dwelt on thoughts of dying - in a sense he never came to the belief that he was dying. And then he died. His passing was gentle and without struggle.

Not all passages are that easy. I’ve sat at bedside with ones who struggle for every breath, writhe in pain, and exhibit significant fear about what is going on. Reading scripture and singing hymns doesn’t always calm those who are agitated. Hospitals and hospice houses are very uncomfortable with that kind of anxiety and frequently administer psychotropic medicines to alleviate the anxiety. These drugs sometimes work wonderfully at their intended tasks. Sometimes they are less effective.

Many years ago and very relaxed and very realistic member of my congregation was as curious about the process of dying as he had been about other aspects of his life. He was careful in his preparations and at home talking about the fact that he was going to die. About two hours before his death, he sent me an email, which I didn’t read until after he had died, that began, “There is some disagreement among the doctors as to the seriousness of my condition. . .”

Over the years I have read a lot of books but near-death experiences and the experiences of those who were revived after a temporary cessation of breathing or heart function. There is a remarkable similarity in some of the descriptions of the experiences: a bright light, a feeling of well being, a sense of being welcomed to a new dimension. I have no evidence or reason to discount the experiences. But I do suspect that having a near-death experience or dying and being revived is somehow not the same thing as actually dying. Not that we can’t learn about the nature of death from those who have had these experiences, just that their experiences aren’t the final experiences of this life for them. My observation of those who actually dies leads me to believe that there is far more diversity and far less similarity in what occurs to them. After all, those who are revived and then live to tell or write of their experiences, all are articulate and fluent in the use of language to describe events and experiences that seem to be at the best on the edge of previous experiences.

There is something about an actual death - every on that I have witnessed - that is beyond words. That does not beg to be described, simply accepted.

I say that, but accepting death is rarely simple, either for those who are dying or for the family members who grieve their loss. For the grieving, death frequently comes too soon, before we are ready, before we have had time to think things through. Even in cases where there has been a lot of advance planning and some frank discussion of death and plans for what to do when death comes, there is a sense that the actual experience of making decisions and bringing a sense of closure is done under pressure. It all unfolds on its own timescale and those of us left behind often have a sense of being a bit out of control. Despite our best-laid plans, things rarely unfold according to the plan.

It is not that we shouldn’t talk about death. We should. It is not that we shouldn’t make plans. We should. But like other experiences of life, we need to acknowledge the difference between the plan and the actual experience. Decisions sometimes simply have to be made in context. Part of the process of dying is releasing control and there is a lot that we are unable to control as death nears. Pain management is an interesting subject when its discussion is esoteric. It is an entirely different subject when trying to balance the desire for one more meaningful conversation against the discomfort experienced by one’s self or one’s loved one. Decisions about inserting or withdrawing a breathing tube seem a bit more straightforward in discussion than they do in context where there is no clear vision of what the results might be or how the timing will turn out.

I am convinced that none of us become experts in dying. Even if we did, our expertise would apply only to others, not to our own death. Each death is unique, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. As it approaches, it can be nice to have experts to consult, but there are no magic formulas of special tricks.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!