Last one to die, turn the lights off

By Linze Griebenow

Several years ago I remember visiting my Great Aunt Nancy in her hometown of Jeffersonville, Ind. I always cherished those moments because the six-hour drive between us made it difficult to see each other once or twice a year, and her gentle southern drawl was something I looked forward to hearing.

On this particular day, my family decided to go for a car ride to see where the day took us.

“Now, would y’all like to go over to the cemetery to see Charlie and I’s headstones and plots?” Aunt Nancy casually asked.

Blinks, shifts eyes to the other passengers.

Long story short, we declined and were deeply mortified by even the idea that one day my great aunt and uncle will die, let alone say it aloud.

I remember deeply grappling after that with the fact that everyone I ever knew and ever loved would eventually pass on someday. I felt helpless to stop it.

Initially I experienced, as I think we all do, a panic, a fear that when that time comes, we’ll be unprepared to give those people away and face death.

It’s strange, I think, that we do everything in our power to prepare ourselves and each other for life from the moment we realize it’s on the way. Books, doctors, therapists and friends are rigorously consulted so that by the time a baby is born, we’ve mentally, emotionally and physically braced ourselves to understand the complexities of bringing a life into the world. And yet, we do not do death the same service.

One of the most obvious ways I see this transpire is through life-prolonging procedures in hospitals. Families are willing to do anything, regardless of brain activity or level of consciousness, to preserve life, even at the end of a disease’s natural progression.

While one empathizes with the death of a loved one, the fact that we are willing to delve so deep into medicalizing an inevitable stage of life is evidence to me that there is an American, culturally-specific denial of death.

Rather than learning to integrate death and dying as not only a natural step in human’s evolution, as well as a cumulative record of your life’s achievements, we choose to hide the elderly away in homes so we don’t have to face them, and tell our kids their goldfish ran away. This does a great disservice to what can be an intensely meaningful, yet possibly difficult, process. Denying death does a great disservice to living life.

The path to our life’s end can be one of reflection, amends and fulfilling our bucket-lists, just as it can be filled with facing regret and heartache. But are those emotions not part of the human condition in the first place? Regardless, it first requires us to stare into the eyes of something we’ve long considered a foe.

Though death demands we confront uneasy feelings, being liberated from its fear is a true life accomplishment.