I think this image sums up pretty well what we’re all feeling right now. Staying inside, hoping that by staying behind the curtains that the Angel of Death won’t see you and “Pass over” you (full pun intended here). In this strange time, we’re thinking about death more often because we’re hearing about it every day. I will say it’s easier to think about the death of others rather than our own mortality. Yet now, it’s getting harder not to. And I think it’s a good thing.
The mother of a close friend of mine had a great expression: “No one comes out of this life alive.” How true. Between my own prognosis and the Coronavirus pandemic, the balance between the two is definitely on my mind. Should I contract Coronavirus, it’s like hearing the gangster in a 1930’s film say “Its coytens for ya, Copper.” As much as I try to suppress my thoughts on mortality, it gets harder with the scourge of the virus, literally encasing us in an invisible fog. Anyone walking through my door could be the Angel of Death who has sneakily taken over the body of a caregiver or acquaintance. This is forcing me to confront the inevitable.
Given that uncertainty, I’m now starting to mentally process the risks and the “What If’s”. There are things I’m doing now to prepare for the time that life ends for me. If not now, when? If anything this pandemic should do for us is to force us to think about how we prepare for own passing.
My journey started when I was asked by my palliative care physician to review my current health directives. A step in that process was to complete a POLST form which adds specificity to the medical directive. There aren’t many questions on it, but each one confronted my greatest fears. They include what a medical professional should do if I become unconscious and unable to communicate. Also what should they do if I can’t breathe, eat, or drink on my own? To be on a ventilator or not, or putting in a feeding tube or not? Wow, talk about life decisions – these are for real. When talking to my palliative care physician, who is highly trained in terminal illness, I found there is no real instruction book one can refer to to easily come up with the right answers. This is all self study. It’s a short answer question that turns into an essay on your own life. The good news from this grim scenario is that your answers can change over time and you’ll still get full credit for it. Most importantly, it takes the burden off Mary Ann from having to make those decisions when I am unable to. The last thing I want for her is to feel uncomfortable at best or regretful at worst.
What I just discussed are the nuts and bolts of preparing for my own death. The harder part is how to be at peace with myself when the time comes. I started going deep into myself, thinking about what my wishes might be, what do I need to do for my family and friends so that both myself and they can be at peace. What I really discovered that when thinking about one’s own death, you have to start with your life. You need to think about what the most important things are in your life. Is it family, friends, community, the earth, etc. It takes clarity on your own life to prioritize what you want to leave behind. Of course, your first response is to say everything, so all the more reason to sort your true priorities to get to five of them.
Once I completed the POLST, I started looking to faith, wisdom and resources for help. Looking into faith I was taught early on that Jews didn’t believe in resurrection or hell. My vision was that I always going to join my parents and family in heaven, which I assumed was going to be in a pretty nice neighborhood. The biggest miracle I had hoped for was that when I did see my mother again that she would have mellowed out and that both my parents wouldn’t be fighting all the time. The pristine and perfect notion of heaven was corrected when I came upon an article that stated, “... the Hebrew Bible mentions neither heaven nor hell: it speaks of “she’ol,” a dark underworld to which everyone goes after death, regardless of how they acted during their lifetime. There is also only one chapter in the entire Hebrew Bible that refers explicitly to a collective resurrection of the dead in the future (Daniel 12)… The idea is that different souls have different destinies immediately after death. The righteous are rewarded in heaven and the wicked are punished in hell. But the dominant view in Judaism has been that the punishments of hell are temporary, lasting up to 12 months. Once transgressors have paid for their transgressions in hell, they can move up to heaven. the dust returns to the earth, where it once was, and the soul returns to God who gave it.” (From an interview by George Yancy with Moulie Vidas, The NY Times, March 2020.)
Well should I be nervous and I am totally screwed? I always thought that if I followed the Ten Commandments I should be all right. But I guess I should pack lightly for at least the first year where it will be pretty warm with no hope of getting a tan.
I recently heard a saying that God is not a rescuer, but an enabler. In discussion with my palliative care physician, he suggested I read a book called The Four Things That Matter Most by Ira Byock, MD. The four things he declares that what we should all be saying to those we care about are: Please forgive me, I forgive you, Thank you, I love you. I started embracing some of those declarations and found they lifted some burden from me after I said it to someone I knew who I cared about. I started saying Thank You more to family, friends, and especially my caregivers. I’ve also been trying to say I Love You more often. In earlier times, I had a hard time saying it (and being a Jewish male didn’t help either). I find it easier now because I feel like have a lot of time to make up for and wanting to be more and more comfortable with it. In terms of asking for forgiveness, I feel I’ve always managed to take responsibility for my actions so asking for forgiveness was easy for me. But forgiving others, now that’s tougher for me. I had a friend who sadly experienced a violent end. He was always a bit of a trickster, but also someone who would do anything for you. There were many times he would piss me off to no end. I would get angry and go radio silent with him until I calmed down before I had the temerity to reconnect with him. (I mentioned in a previous post that I always had a hard time letting go of friends.) I never once thought to say that I forgave him. Then I lost touch, until I found out he had passed away. I felt awful, not just for his passing, but that I never had the chance to forgive his transgressions. There’s a saying that truly fits this scenario, “It’s always too soon until it’s too late.”
Finally, one of the resources I was introduced to is called The Five Wishes. It’s a deck of cards, each with a wish that a dying person would want in order to be at peace. As I went through the deck, many of the wishes seemed obvious. But there were some that made me really think. As tough an exercise that it was, it helped me prioritize the things I want to happen most when it’s time to say Adios. First, I picked fifteen, then resorted down to ten, then finally down to the last five. When I was done, I again felt a sense of relief for myself and for my family.
At this point, I’m sure you’re curious what I chose. Here they are:
- To feel like my life is complete
- To not be a burden on my family
- To not die alone
- To be able to say goodbye to important people in my life
- To be free from pain
I’m sharing this because I hope you, dear reader, will take this opportunity to take your fears of death and take the time to think whether your prepared to face the inevitable. My hope is not to frighten you more than you already are. Hearing the number of fatalities each day seems like it’s getting closer each day. But I feel that if you’ve taken care of yourself, then have faith in the randomness of it all that this will bypass you and that you will survive. I actually have the same hope as all of you, even though I am extremely vulnerable. Yet the one thing I can say is if the worst should happen I can take some solace that I have done some of the hard work ahead of time. That doesn’t take away from how difficult it will be for me to say goodbye to my wife, my kids, my family, my close friends. But I can say I’ll be more at peace.
My point here is to meet death with life. All of these decisions you consider have more to do with life than death. Your directives are about keeping you going. Your wishes are about your loved ones, a sense of closure, and how you want to be remembered by others. These are meant to free you up so you can enjoy life now with less baggage and less worry. It’s something you control so why not do it?
More to come…