Sometimes it is quick and painless. Sometimes it is slow and painful. Sometimes it happens suddenly, and sometimes it is long expected. Sometimes it comes too soon, and sometimes it comes later than it should. As sure as the sun rises, it too will set. Death eventually finds us all.
Dying is a topic too often ignored in society. We tend to avoid speaking of death with the same primal fear that we use to avoid the actual event. Ignoring death will not make it go away, though. It will actually leave us in a position where the process of dying is more terrifying, painful, and overwhelming. This not only applies to the person dying, but also to those around them.
A major problem facing modern society is that we have lost many of the coping mechanisms developed over centuries to deal with death. The death bed scene with last words and loved ones has been replaced by last ditch medical efforts and the chaos of the emergency room. The entire process of dying has become medicalized. There reaches a point of diminishing returns in life, where the pain of invasive procedures outweighs the short time that may be bought with them. When dying is reduced to a simple contest of grabbing every last second through whatever means necessary, much of the human element is lost. Above all, medical care must be put into perspective, and not become the only perspective.
For this reason it is important to have not only a last will, but a living will and advance directives. Advance directives outline medical treatment in the event the person cannot speak for themselves. The specifics range from the use of tube feeding, breathing machines, and resuscitation. Having specific instructions takes the burden off of loved ones, whom it usually falls upon to guess the intentions of the dying. Despite the importance of these legal documents, less than 50% of the severely or terminally ill have advance directives.
There is more to dying than simply determining how you wish to die, however. Almost every religion has beliefs about death and transition rituals which benefit both the dying and those they leave behind. The truth is that we can never know with absolute certainty what death really is. Buddhists believe it is a part of an ongoing process of re-incarnation until one achieves enlightenment. Christians believe it is a doorway to heaven or hell, and a precursor to resurrection. Others believe that consciousness ceases altogether and gives way to oblivion, and still others believe that consciousness becomes one with all. The fact that all ends are possible is what makes dying so terrifying and exciting at the same time.
Just as important as what comes after death is what death means for life. Death gives us a sense of urgency. It provides us with an appreciation for what we have in life. Every day, every second, is a gift not guaranteed. Only the inevitability that life will change is guaranteed. Death is not the opposite of life; death is a part of life.
The Wall Street Journal, The Ultimate End-of-Life Plan: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324577304579054880302791624.html?mod=wsj_share_tweet
America Magazine, On Dying Well: http://americamagazine.org/issue/305/article/dying-well
Scripture Journey, How We Treat Death Reflects on How We Treat Life: http://scripturejourney.blogspot.com/2007/11/how-we-treat-death-reflects-on-how-we.html
Dartmouth Medicine, Lessons in Dying Well: http://dartmed.dartmouth.edu/fall08/html/lessons.php
Medline Plus, Advance Directives: http://dartmed.dartmouth.edu/fall08/html/lessons.php
The End of Life, Questioning Assumptions and Dawning Awareness: http://www.npr.org/programs/death/readings/essays/byock.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Deaths and Mortality: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm
Beliefnet, Transition Rituals: http://www.beliefnet.com/Health/Health-Support/Grief-and-Loss/2001/05/Transition-Rituals.aspx?p=1