Why talk about dying? And especially, why start a health column with writing about dying? After all, it is spring and everything is beginning!
Right. Or maybe not?
“Every new beginning starts with the ending of what was before.” With these words of explanation almost 25 years ago, the old medicine woman handed me a shovel and said: “Dig your grave.”
That is what I did. For one night she made me lie in my grave. This one night changed my life. This one night will be with me every single day of my life. In this one night I learned to have death as a friend for living.
In many traditional indigenous societies the initiation into the mysteries of death were done during puberty. How can you grow into adulthood without having made your peace with death? How can a youth start a life of their own without contemplating the end?
The local newspaper is full of reports and letters about MAID (Medical Assistance In Dying). Opinions and emotions are being shared, often hiding the real topic: fear. Fear of suffering on the one hand, on the other the fear of dying earlier than necessary.
One thing is for sure: the introduction of MAID changes the landscape of life’s ending. We have a choice now as to when we want it to end. We can choose to allow the process of dying to take its natural course or to utilize what modern medicine can provide in terms of analgesic treatment and other supportive measures. In addition to this, now we have another choice: we can decide when enough is enough and ask for medical assistance in our passing.
The legalization of MAID increases our freedom considerably. As such I support it wholeheartedly. What we do with this new freedom is another question.
Undoubtedly it can bring dignity to an ending. Sometimes the process of dying is painfully slow and a torture, not only for the person dying, but also for their family. I have seen people die in a cruel way. The young children they left behind were traumatized for life. I wished MAID had been an option back then.
The benefits of MAID are indisputable. However, we also have to ask ourselves a few uncomfortable questions.
Is a drug-induced death the last chapter in the catechism of our drug culture? A culture that does not want to face the often painful realities of life, but offers to numb every problem with a drug instead of dealing with it? Instead of grieving a loss we take an antidepressant, instead of finding trust in life we turn to anxiolytic medication, instead of changing habits that would make healing possible, we use painkillers. Instead of facing life, our children flee into drugs. Is medical-assisted suicide just another form of this habitual denial?
Not trusting life anymore, we try to control nature. We no longer trust our bodies, these marvels that have stored millions of years of life experience and healing. According to doctors, the body is a time bomb waiting to explode on us, not our friend carrying us through life.
So we try to control it, to force it with chemical violence to comply with our expectations. The result is death becoming a chronic illness, a slow wasting away instead of a clear ending, the period at the end of our sentence removed and the last words languishing. Is a drug-induced dying another form of trying to control life, to subjugate its wildness and unpredictability?
Many more questions need to be asked. If you are interested in these questions, I highly recommend reading Stephen Jenkinson’s book, “Die Wise.” An excellent and challenging read.
One great benefit of all this discussion about MAID, about the new hospital and about who might be the carrier of a new hospice: we are talking about dying. There is hope that we will finally take a step out of the fear-sealed jail of a death-phobic culture that strangles our ability to live fully, and become more aware that life is transient, aware that life ends. This in itself is a blessing.
“You cannot live unless you are willing to face death,” I still hear the old medicine woman say. When we talk about dying, we give life to hope.
You said live out loud, and die you said lightly,
and over and over again you said be.
Roland Guenther is a German MD who lives in Royston and practices homeopathy.