Dealing with Dying
By Bart Vogelzang

No, I’m not dying, any more today than I was yesterday, at least as far as I’m aware. Sadly, a relatively close acquaintance is, and thinking about him has me wondering whether we are genetically influenced or culturally indoctrinated into our behaviors when it comes to death; both sides, as the one doing the dying and the one dealing with the dying.

Firstly, I must admit that I don’t really relish the idea of dying, but it is the thought of pain as I gasp my last breath more than the cessation of my existence. I’ve had my moments of wanting to end former pains, both the emotional type, from feeling rejected by the world, and the more immediate, if not equally horrible, pain of a kidney stone stuck in the wrong place trying to rip its way out of my body. Truly, it was the feeling that things were not going to improve that was the most horrible aspect of my distress. I’ve cut myself badly, broken bones in my body, and had that excruciating head pain that can really not be called a ‘head ache’, but in each of those situations I had hope for it to be gone, and life to improve. Death really does feel like it is the only option when there is only the seeming certainty of continuing pain and suffering. But I’m going off on a sidetrack here, though before I get back on track I should mention that the “It Gets Better” campaign is precisely to help people who think there is no hope of improvement.

What puzzles me is that some people, who have been told they are terminally ill, will seek out others for company, reassurance, and hopefully a relatively easy passing from life; as opposed to others who will immediately begin to dissociate themselves from any and all personal connections, from family, from friends, from co-workers, even from their own pets. What makes one person choose people when it is their time to go, whilst others choose isolation? Is there an instinctive, maybe genetic aspect, or is it cultural or related to their upbringing?

Is it maybe a ‘control’ issue? Maybe the person has lived their life easily controlling the relationships with those around them, only to find that the loss of control by their inevitable death has left them with no leverage to deal with those who seek to ‘support’, which to our dying buddy may be anything but welcome. But what if the person hasn’t been like that, and has lived fully, thriving on being with others with nary a hint of being a control freak? What makes them implode like that?

Maybe it is related to dignity…As a cat lover slaving to serve them for many years, I have seen them remove themselves from the presence of all who have loved them, to die quietly in isolation, with me finding their stiff body curled somewhere obscure inside the house, or even outside. As cat lovers know, cats have lots of dignity and if they make a mistake, like jumping poorly, or stepping in a dish of water, they will hide in mortified shame for some time.

On the other side of the coin, there is the person who milks the sap of human kindness as they march steadily on to death’s door. They will take any and all affection, making sure to give and extract promises, counsel on personal secrets from everyone, and generally become even more of a people person than ever before. It is like they feel compelled to live their whole life over again, forgetting about their inhibitions, assuming they had some in the first place. I don’t understand it at all, and cannot offer any ideas, just questions.

One of those questions is about why people who are religious seem to spend a significant amount of effort fighting what they should be seeing as God’s Will. Unless they’ve been living a lie, shouldn’t they be rejoicing at soon meeting their Maker? Maybe that’s their problem; that they’ve not been nearly as good as they know they should have been. I’ve heard many times about people who were marginally religious in early and mid life turning rabidly religious upon getting a terminal diagnosis; sort of trying to catch up on being good. Seriously though, if God could be fooled by that ruse we’d all be in serious trouble. Hmm.

Another interesting side of death related behavior is shown by those dealing with the dying. Some, good Samaritans for the most part, help ease things, not only for the nearly deceased, but also their family and friends. Generally though, those people are either paid workers or dedicated volunteers, and they aren’t the puzzle to me. What is the puzzle is that the same sort of last minute ‘goodwill’ is shown by some, with isolation and separation by others; exactly like that exhibited by the dying.

Suddenly some will become extra friendly, when previously they haven’t been particularly great as friends or helpful as family members. As if they have to get brownie points in the time that remains, they scurry about, supposedly doing good things for the dying person, often completely ignoring their actual requests in favor of what they feel should be what the ill person wants, whilst wondering what is in the will.

Others seem to depart like birds before a strong wind, probably unable to deal with death, maybe too wrought up by thoughts of their own mortality, or maybe just having absolutely no idea what to actually say or do. It is easy to condemn those people for stepping away, but that would be wrong, since their dying friend may well be seeking exactly that from them, some distance and a quiet dignified passing.

The only thing I do know to be wrong is for anyone to tell another how he or she ‘should’ be acting or feeling. It is a very personal thing, no matter which side of the door you are on, and your feelings are yours and they really cannot be ‘wrong’. At worst they might not meet current local social expectations, but that’s about it. Everyone has the right to grieve, or even not grieve, in his or her own way.

© 2011 Bart Vogelzang All Rights Reserved