This article was first written before the coronavirus struck the world. It has even more cogency now.
Death and dying do not make for a jolly subject of any conversation, but it is part of life. And none of us is getting any younger. Is death or dying something you think about very much?
You may prefer to think it will never happen and leave it at that. But if you are one of those people who like to prepare themselves for what is coming down the line, you might want to give it a passing glance from time to time.
As We Grow Older
I am not obsessed with death, but it does cross my mind on occasion – and probably increasingly. Before I was 60, I rarely gave it much thought at all. The possibility of dying seemed almost as remote as it did when I was a child, which is to say it was over a very distant horizon.
Now that I am in the second half of my 70s, I have to face the fact that my remaining years are increasingly limited. The statistics are not brilliant as you grow older, for obvious reasons. And, with each quickly passing year, they only get worse.
None of us knows when we’ll die, of course, but it is time to begin to recognise the situation.
Yes, some of us live well into our 90s – and centenarians are becoming much more common. I even have good health and good genes, my parents having lived to age 90 and 91 respectively.
Yet, these are details. The truth is, we will grow older and frailer and will have to face the end, sooner or later. In the words of a young woman living with AIDS, quoted in my book on the subject some years ago, “You haven’t got forever any more.”
Is it the moment of dying that worries you?
Although some people die in great distress, the much greater likelihood is that you will do so fairly peacefully. The profession of palliative care is getting increasingly clever at keeping people pain free. In the coming years, it can only get better.
I haven’t reached the stage of thinking where I would want to be – or, indeed, where I am likely to be.
Nor do I often think about my own funeral. Occasionally, when I hear a particularly beautiful piece of music, I will say casually, “You can play that at my funeral.” But in fact, it would be better played at a funeral I was attending during my lifetime as I would actually hear it.
Or is it the fact of no longer living that worries you? Of no longer being there to enjoy the many pleasures of life? Or no longer being there for your family and friends, some of whom may rely on you?
These are undoubtedly ‘heavy’ issues, which you may want to prepare for.
In fact, we do make many preparations without thinking of them as such. The urge to ‘downsize’ stems partly from the wish to make our passing easier for those who must administer your things. Perhaps you have done this for someone else and it came home to you how very complex such matters are.
Visits to long-lost relations – or friends you don’t see very often – may also be stimulated by the thought of doing so before it is ‘too late’. Such thoughts may remain un-articulated but are nonetheless real for everyone concerned.
Death of Loved Ones
If anything, I think less about my own death and more about the possible death of my husband, as statistically, this is the more likely first event.
Having been married almost all our adult lives, it is scary to think about being alone. Those of you who are already widowed will doubtless know what I mean.
Writing About Death
Although I really am not obsessed with death, I have written two books dealing with two different aspects of it.
One was about young people with HIV and AIDS, all of whom were dying because there had been no cure back then. It is not a morbid book at all, but it is an honest one about people facing an early death.
I was impressed with their resilience and called it Wise Before Their Time, because that is what I felt they were.
The second is about people who work with the dying. I had worked as a volunteer in a hospice and found it fascinating that so many people could go to work each day to help others die. I interviewed nurses, doctors, chaplains of various faiths, administrators, and even a very reflective chef.
I called it Life in a Hospice, because this is what it was about – the living before the dying.
I recently watched a TV interview with Sir Ian McKellen, who always struck me as a very thoughtful man. I also have a soft spot for him as he wrote a terrific Foreword for my book about people with AIDS.
Himself in his 80s, he said he did think about death quite often and had even planned his own funeral. (And noted that he thought it sounded like such a good occasion, he wondered if he could plan an early dress rehearsal so he could attend).
He surmised that old people thought about death a lot, because it was a form of preparation. When the time actually came, it probably helped them to feel that they are ready.
(This was initially published by SixtyandMe. See https://sixtyandme.com/thinking-about-dying-doesnt-have-to-be-morbid/)