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More On Death

How unprepared we are for death. In the past month I have had my aunt killed by a truck on the main road of Knysna, this week a beautiful friend commit suicide, a very close friend was given twelve months to live after a cancer diagnosis, and another close friend telling me that at 93 all she wants is to die, and another friend who turned 90 on Friday says that all that is left on her bucket list is to go to heaven. I am aware of the language we use to make it sound less nal – “she has passed away” or “he is no longer with us”. The word “dead” does not come easy, somehow. It is not a topic of conversation for the residents. In fact, we are so uncomfortable talking about it that we mostly avoid talking about it all. Like giving birth, death has become completely medicalised, with most older people dying in hospital. (And whilst I thought that to be a terrible thing, my friend who is now preparing for her own death tells me that she would prefer to die in hospital, where she does not have to be in control. A sterile place that will not so starkly and painfully remind her of who and what she leaves behind.)

Does the way we engage with death say anything about the way we live? I think it does, somehow. The way that we engage with the planet is indicative of our attitude of superiority and de ance towards Life. We think we are in charge, we “take control” of nature, and we assume we have sussed it out. Have we…? No, we have no idea. With all our grandiose knowledge, artificial intelligence and bio-engineering, death is still our master. We will all die. Maybe in a hundred years’ time, someone will have figured out how to circumvent death, but not in our lifetime. If there is one thing that we can be sure of, it is that we will die. The more I learn about longevity, the more it troubles me. Why are we so obsessed with a long life? Is it really something that is so precious that we should attain it at all costs? Do we not realise that the planet is overcrowded, that the longer we live the more we will deplete the natural resources? Have we figured out the good life? At 85, my Dad is on his annual motorbike trip into the deep Karoo. My beloved Lynn at the age of

97 was the life and soul of the party. My mother-in-law, turning 80 in a few days’ time, is in Cancun on holiday where she paraglided yesterday. I know many remarkable old people. However, I also know thousands of people who are not doing well with old age. Colostomies, nasogastric and PEG tubes, permanent oxygen, loneliness and depression. Is old age really something to aspire to, at all costs? Is it the ultimate achievement to grow old? If so, what did we achieve? All the talk about “successful” ageing makes me wonder to what extent we really have control over the ageing process. We all know very healthy, intellectual people who develop dementia. We know about smokers who live to 100, lungs intact. Maybe it is time to start looking at the way we enter and exit life. More natural births and more natural deaths. Maybe it is time we give words to the exit, give it more thought, discuss it more openly, ask more questions about it, and think more deeply about it. From my years of reading it is clear that death, like birth, is possibly the most wonderful experience of transcendence.

Perhaps it is our indoctrination about “life after death” that makes it dif cult to really discuss our fears and anxieties about death. Heaven or hell? Reincarnation? The end? I suppose our thoughts of the afterlife will predict our attitude toward death. Again, I know of staunch Christians who fear death and hang on for dear life (literally and figuratively speaking), of spiritual individuals who cannot let go. Atheists and agnostics alike simply cannot transcend. Years ago I worked in a convent in Johannesburg with a group of really old nuns. Somehow, the nuns never became “bedridden”. (I hate the word – sounds like being “flea-ridden” or “disease-ridden”, and prefer the phrase “living in bed”.) They went about their daily routine with a stoic rhythm, even when they were quite frail. We all knew that when one of the nuns decided not to get up in the morning that their death is imminent. A few days later, they would quietly die. No fuss, no big deal. I have found the same with people living with dementia who would decide to stop eating and stop taking their medication. They wanted to die. We would offer them meals, prepare their favourite food, and offer their medication on time. Yet, they would refuse, and within a few days, they would die. We should honour the will to die, talk about it, give expression to its magnificence, and explore its mysticism.

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