When he was dying, he mistook the approach of death for the return of health and whispered with his last breath, ‘I am better now.’ Despite our doubts and dogmas, our fears and tears, let us believe that these precious words are valid for all the millions who have died. Eulogy for his brother Ebon, written by Robert G. Ingersoll. May 31, 1879, Washington, D.C.
INTRODUCTION – People are afraid of death. It is on the same level as religion, politics, and sex as topics to avoid in polite (and other) societies. While most people overcome their culturally induced aversion to thinking about death long enough to do some estate planning (e.g., write a will, maybe sign a donor card), little if any attention is paid to how to die.
ARE YOU DYING HEALTHY? – To die healthy means to live well until your final breath, when you think, murmur, or say aloud; I feel better now, as did Robert Green Ingersoll (following in the footsteps of his brother Ebon) when he closed his eyes permanently on July 21, 1899. Of course, not everyone has a say in how, when, why, or where they die. Most people have no choice but to die. Many of us die without graceful farewells, owing to a failure to plan ahead of time. Those fortunate enough to avoid untimely deaths and who also focus on healthy living may appreciate the availability of options for a good end. Dying healthy isn’t as appealing as planning, managing, and constantly fine-tuning a healthy life. However, it may still be a worthwhile endeavor (pun intended).
We know from spending patterns revealed during the American healthcare reform debate that much money is spent on the last few months of life. What is done to keep people alive is not always by their wishes. The quality of life in the final months (or even years) can be quite deplorable. Those who value a healthy lifestyle may want to plan for the end of their lives ahead of time. When that time comes, they may be more willing to recognize the signs and less inclined to entertain hopeless or distressing denial strategies. They may be more likely to exert control over life quality during the final stage, consistent with the lifestyle artistry managed when living well.
Unfortunately, very few people die in good health. Yes, one could argue that it is possible to die healthy. The phrase is an oxymoron, but if interpreted correctly, it is not a contradiction in terms. Passing healthy may appear to be a good/lousy combination unless explained. The psychic advice given to Ariel Kaminer, an undercover New York Times reporter, recently amused me. Ms. Kaminer was assigned to ask a diverse group of fortune tellers what to expect in 2010. Ms. Kaminer was told that she was in for a year in which everything she set out to accomplish would be realized, despite all her ambitions being dashed! That was extremely useful.
Furthermore, while her love life will bloom like a flower, her romantic prospects are in grave danger. And, while great things will happen, nothing will happen. I’m not making this up, Ms. Kaminer concluded. I learned it from the experts. (See Ariel Kaminer’s The Future: Cloudy, With Platitudes, December 31, 2009, p. 25.)
Yes, the phrase “die healthy” may appear absurd initially, like the kind of crazy talk psychics offers their moron customers who take seers seriously. But don’t put dying healthy in this category too quickly! Consider how I interpret the phrase – from a REAL wellness standpoint of operating with reason while seeking exuberance and liberty.
DIE HEALTHY DEFINED – Die healthy means that if you have to die, and science suggests that we carbon-based biped life forms mucking around on a small rock orbiting a giant fireball in the middle of nowhere have to (thanks, Pat Condell), why not do so as sensibly and even healthfully as possible? That is what I mean by dying healthy. (Warning: There will be a long sentence ahead – take a deep breath!) As wise choices of disciplined habit patterns with sound philosophy and conscious thinking promote a good measure of happiness, fulfillment, meaning, purpose, fun, joy, love, good health, and the like, so can death be approached in a way that increases desired processes while decreasing undesired circles.
Indeed, anyone who is concerned enough about their quality of life to consider and plan a wellness lifestyle will also consider and design a similar wellness dying style. The meaning of the phrase die healthy is the process of doing so.
TIPS FOR DIETING HEALTHY – Dying stinks. Although there are a few ignoble exceptions, very few people want to do it, no matter how sorry their situations are. Do you need an example? What about the Islamic maniacs who believe what most of us find absurd, namely that three score and twelve virgin hotties await the martyr who blows himself up for Allah? Is there no end to the nonsense that can be accepted under the toxic cloud of revealed religion? So far, nothing stands out.
Back to dying naturally. As previously stated, few do, but this can and should change. So, here are a few pointers to get you started.
* Visualize a good death. Consider someone you knew or read about who acted in a way that suggests attractive possibilities. No, it’s not something you want to do, but since you have to leave soon, a plan or at least a few guidelines for the time leading up to the last minute should be considered.
* Discuss your feelings with your spouse, children, and anyone else who will listen. Take legal steps to increase the likelihood that doctors and other strangers who may become influential in your final days know your intentions and desires.
* Consider assembling a transition facilitator team. Don’t you adore euphemisms? I mean, when your organs start shutting down. You can’t taste or even see your food or control your bowels – when you’re steeped in dementia and experiencing congestive heart failure, kidney problems, a lot of pain, more delirium than usual, and a lot of agitation – don’t you want someone or a team of experts to help you escape a bad situation that’s rapidly getting worse?
* In keeping with the previous point, don’t learn about palliative sedation and the medications that can alleviate unbearable pain. Lorazepam, midazolam, phenobarbital, scopolamine, ketamine, morphine, methadone, fentanyl, propofol, and sodium thiopental. Combinations of these drugs are even more effective.
So there you have it – that’s what it means to live to die healthy. Not as optimistic as living a wellness lifestyle, but since you can’t do that forever, it seems prudent to mentally practice a wellness lifestyle-worthy curtain call.
There is no reasonable alternative to dying healthy if you believe you have the right to choose your best way to break or, to use a more common euphemism, to pass comfortably.
Best wishes, live well; when you can’t, let it go.
Before concluding this essay, I’d like to share a response I received to these ideas from a long-time colleague, columnist Bob Ludlow.
I have no hesitation in agreeing with your wise and timely advice. I say timely because, while I still feel like a spring chicken, I’m not — far from it, in fact — and it’s time to stop procrastinating and face the sober reality that, no matter how good I feel now and how well I function, I don’t have that many good years left before something pretty awful happens to my aging 70-year-old body or, God forbid, my mind. So thank you for drawing my attention to this somewhat unpleasant subject with your usual wit, wisdom, and rationality. After years of working on the Bob Ludlow project, I hoped to stop tweaking and accept the less-than-perfect but functional results. Your awakening has reminded me of unfinished business and prompted me to make a belated New Year’s resolution: This year, I will conduct the necessary research and then take the steps needed to prepare for my impending decline and failure. Hopefully, the fall will be delayed for many years and then be brief, if not immediate. There is no point in enduring unnecessary pain, especially in a hopeless situation. So it behooves all of us to take the wise and necessary steps you suggest to transition to eternal oblivion as peaceful and uneventful – and thus as healthy – as possible.
The prospect of dying in the not-too-distant future doesn’t bother me (yet), and it’s unlikely to frighten me when the time comes. Unfortunately, I cannot be sure. Human beings are incredibly inept at predicting how they will feel and act in given circumstances, as the irrepressible Daniel Gilbert convincingly documents in his delightful and highly informative book, Stumbling on Happiness.
Like almost everyone else, the prospect of long-term disability and pain bothers me greatly. If that is ever my prognosis, I will prefer to leave on my terms. Of course, Gilbert claims that I can’t predict how I’ll feel in those circumstances. But it’s a given that I’ll want instant access to the most potent pain-relief cocktail available.
Those are my initial thoughts on a subject I have neglected for far too long. I’m looking forward to expanding my knowledge without becoming obsessed or morbid.
Publisher of the ARDELL WELLNESS REPORT, an electronic newsletter devoted to weekly commentaries on current issues affecting personal and social well-being from the quality of life standpoint. The emphasis is on true well-being. REAL is an acronym that stands for the critical issues embraced and advanced by Don’s philosophy: Reason, Exuberance, Athleticism, and Liberty.
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