A week ago, my father passed away at the age of 93. I was at his side the last three days of his life, and as he was drifting in and out of coma, I had many opportunities to reflect on life and death – thoughts that have been with me also this chaotic first week after his death. This blog post is not so much about him, although much could be said of the long and mostly happy life he led, but sharing some more general and universal thoughts that have gone through my mind.
In the old agrarian society death was an ever-present part of life. The child mortality was horrendously high, simple bacterial infections could in the pre-antibiotic era easily kill a person in his prime age, and people died at home, not in a hospital or other institution. Almost everyone therefore had a direct and personal experiences of death.
Today, people instead mostly die away from their home (at least in the Western part of the world), and too often without their family by their side. Instead of being a natural part of life, death has in our society, become the most taboo subject of all, and any thought of it may serve as a reminder of our own mortality and eventual fate, something which we desperately want to keep out of our minds.
We don’t have a tradition to talk about death, and when we encounter it, it’s mostly in movies and the news in contexts that for most is abstract and not directly related to our own situation at a very personal level. Most young people have never seen a dead person.
Our fear of acknowledging death is massively supported by the fashion, cosmetics and media industries that are earning billions by selling false dreams of eternal youth. By clinging to these futile ideas, we are not only wasting our money and fooling ourselves, we are also missing out on opportunities to grow as human beings.
A fact of life that has been emphasised by the Buddhists for the last 2,500 years is that everything is impermanent. Life is constantly changing. We are not the same as we were yesterday, and we and the life around us will continue to change until we take our last breath. Trying to deny this fact and cling to past more youthful versions of ourselves will doubtlessly create disappointment and suffering.
Living in a dream that our lives as they are now will remain forever will also counteract our opportunities to live our lives fully every single day. Imagine that you have been told by your doctor that you only had six months left to live. Would you still be slumping in front of the TV or wasting your time in other ways, or would you try to get the most out of every single day or moment. Reminding ourselves every morning that this day may be our last is a strong signal not to postpone the important things in our lives, because there may be no tomorrow.
This is about our own death, but most of us will encounter deaths of others in our immediate surrounding before it’s time for our own. When we have family members or close friends approaching death, we should take this opportunity to reflect on our own eventual death. By doing this we will be better prepared to be open to discuss death and other existential issues with our dying loved ones.
In my own experience, including as a practicing physician for many years, most persons know when their time is coming towards its end. Often, they would like to discuss this with their closest family but refrain from doing this out of consideration for the fears and feelings of others, and their families are often reacting in the same way. As a relative one should not force this discussion, but it’s advisable to clearly signal a preparedness and openness to discuss these matters. This may result in a beautiful heart-to-heart discussion, which will help both in their further processes.
The immediate days or weeks after the death of a loved one is always a chaotic period, no matter how old the person was and the circumstances around the death. I’m in that process myself right now after having said goodbye to my elderly father after a prolonged period of disability, and I couldn’t even imagine how it would be like if this moment instead had come out of the blue at a much earlier age.
My own consolation is that death came to my father as a relief, ending a period of suffering, and I try to see my loss in relation to the person he was when still full of life and energy many years ago. This is the person I miss, not the one that finally could pass away.