A couple weeks ago, a friend put down her old and ill cat, taking her two young sons with her to the vet to witness the cat's passing. She encouraged the boys to ask questions and talk about the cat's impending death as well as to celebrate her life and their love for her. Her approach struck me as admirable, practical and respectful of her sons and their emotions. From the details my friend shared with me about her cat's passing, it sounded like her cat had a very good death.
Death terrified my father, as it does many people. He had not wanted to die alone. What he failed to grasp while he was alive was the simple fact that we each die alone, as we are each alone within our bodies. Even when he lay feverish and in pain from Dengue fever while in New Guinea during World War II, he thought that being ill and alone was the worst that could happen to him. He vowed to himself that if he survived, he would marry and have children so that he would not live out the rest of his life and die alone.
He told me about his Dengue fever vow after his prostate cancer diagnosis. His heavy duty heart disease and high blood pressure prevented surgical treatment, so he took estrogen, hoping that taking this female hormone would not turn him into a woman. It didn't. It gave him another two years before the cancer spread to his bones.
During all the months of my father's terminal illness, not once did he talk about death, much less his death, to me. No one in the family reported that he'd brought it up with them. Father danced around it, wrapping up his affairs, blessedly free of physical pain. I was too chicken to bring it up, either, especially because our relationship had not been a good one for many years.
After suffering a stroke and nearly dying -- my family called me home and told me to bring funeral clothes -- he suddenly experienced improved vision. His eyes no longer needed his eyeglasses. Hmmmm..... Before I left to return to my home, he brought up the concept of remorse with me. I've forgotten now specifically what he asked me about remorse. I remember the pleading in his eyes, and my response that if he felt remorse about something he'd done, maybe he needed to apologize and make amends. If it was too late for that, it made no sense to hang on to the remorse. Let it go. That was the last time I saw him alive.
What is a good death? Does it vary by individual, i.e. each of us has her own needs and manner for her own good death? American society focuses far more on life, youth, follies, politics, celebrations, and leaves all things related to death in the shadows, guarded by religion. While religious beliefs and rituals comfort people who believe, what is there to comfort people who aren't particularly religious? Like my father.
Now, the states of Oregon and Washington have laws that allow someone who's suffering from a terminal illness and with less than six months to live to end his life on his own terms and in his own time rather than waiting for death. In the last 25 years, Hospice services have grown and evolved, spreading throughout the country. And while I support and applaud these developments, I wish that our culture supported a more open conversation about death and its process. Talking about death need not be morbid or depressing. Death is as much a part of life as birth. In fact, the belief exists that death is really a birth into another existence on another plane.
My father knew he was dying and hadn't much time left. After he returned home from the hospital, he began talking to the air above his face, his eyes focused on some point there. We couldn't understand what he was saying, and only occasionally did he actually speak a coherent sentence. The one I recall was "What are you doing here?" spoken in a tone of fear and disdain. These mysterious conversations occurred more and more frequently as the weeks passed. During his last week, his mean streak came out. He refused to sleep. He was afraid that if he slept, he wouldn't wake again. He hit a Hospice worker who came to close. He fought with my mother, telling her that she'd have to work after he was gone. Then he stopped eating and talking, at least to those in the living world. My father became extremely agitated about 24 hours before he passed and it was necessary to sedate him. As a result, he fell into a deep sleep from which he did not wake.
My father died alone but at home in his own bed, his own bedroom, with the things he knew and loved around him, and his beloved cats. Family members were in the house but did not know when exactly he passed. He went in peace, not in agitation and fear, despite the fight he put up against death. He fought not because he was concerned about loved ones, his money, his house, or anything else in our physical world. He fought because he was terrified he would go to Hell.
Over the years, each time Death has touched my life, I've thought of my father's death. Was it a good death? Perhaps, for him. Was it the way he'd wanted it? He wouldn't have fought so hard if he hadn't wanted to. He loved life in the physical world. But he was alone, unless one considers whoever he was having those mysterious conversations with helped him at that moment. His process of dying over the many months, however, occurred with all of us and affected all of us. We discussed his care but not his death. And we didn't talk with him about his death -- his thoughts and feelings, our thoughts and feelings. Only occasionally had he blurted something out, e.g. his terror of Hell. I have to admit, as a parent, my father's model of dying is not what I would want for myself.
I believe my father's fear came from his beliefs, religious and otherwise. He feared he'd go to Hell which suggests that he believed that he'd not behaved well in life or that he was not a good person. I hope I've learned from the experience of his death as well as other deaths. Taking my friend's approach with her cat as a model, if the family and his friends had decided to come together in the last week of my father's life and spent the time with him, talking with him about how his death affected them, talking about how his life had affected them, and celebrating his accomplishments and his humanity, perhaps he could see the truth about himself and not fear that he would go to Hell. And accept that each of us dies alone.....