The Journal of Palliative Care

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:26

Information Exchange
The journal of the National Council for Hospice and Specialist Palliative Care
No 32 - March 2001

WHAT DEATH MEANS TO US

When my mother was eighty years old she said something to me which I found to be totally unexpected and utterly amazing. She said,
Dorothy, I’ve had a good life.

I asked, What do you mean?

She replied,
Your father never interfered with what I wanted to do.

I thought, but did not say, He wouldn’t dare. My father was afraid of her just as all her relatives were. When Mother was displeased she would become immensely enraged, and many times she followed this with a great sulk which could last weeks, even months. She often had occasion to be displeased because, apart from flowers which she loved, everybody and everything in the entire universe failed to live up to her expectations.

When I recovered from the shock of my mother’s words I was pleased because I knew then that Mother had carried out the task which we all have to complete if we are to face our death with any degree of equanimity. Our task is that we have to review our life and find it satisfactory.

Just how we do this depends on the meaning we have given to death. All we can ever know for certain about death is that a person becomes strangely still. We can only guess at what death itself is, but there are only two possible meanings we can give it. Death is either the end of my identity or a doorway to another life.

Deciding on which meaning to give to death determines what we see as the purpose of our life. If we see death as the end of our identity we have to make our life in some way satisfactory. If we see death as a doorway to another life we have to decide whether the next life will be better than this one. If we decide, as most people do, that it will be better, we then have to decide on the standards which have to be met for entry into this better life. Since we have to meet these standards we have to live this life in terms of the next.

The belief in some kind of afterlife is prevalent in all societies and throughout history. It springs in part from the keen sense of justice and fairness which young children soon develop. The need for justice can engender a belief in a Just World where, ultimately, goodness is rewarded and badness is punished. Since real life rarely shows this pattern another life is needed where justice can prevail.

Many, if not most, people believe in a Just World. This is what all religions teach, though they differ in how they define goodness and badness, rewards and punishments. People who are not at all religious will often say that if they did not believe that ultimately goodness is rewarded and badness punished they would find life unendurable.

When we are small children we puzzle over the nature of death and the purpose of life. The adults around us might subject us to formal teaching on these matters, or we might just listen to adult conversations and garner ideas. Throughout our childhood we are constantly being told that we are not good enough. We are punished for our wickedness and exhorted to be good. We enter adult life with the constant worry, Am I good enough?

By ‘good’ we can mean many things, not just the usual virtues of honesty, truthfulness, generosity and so on, but the qualities which earn other people’s attention and admiration, such as being successful or being attractive or loveable. We each plan our lives in terms of how we define ‘good’ and ‘death’. As adults we can be so busy living our lives that we never make conscious, much less critically review, the meanings we have given to ‘good’ and ‘death’. We tell ourselves that where death is concerned we are the exception. Then one day we discover there are no exceptions. Threatened with death, we review our life.

We think of the times we failed other people and the times we tried our best but still people hurt, betrayed and left us. We think of the lost opportunities and the bad decisions where we failed ourselves. If we see death as the end of our identity, how can we see our life as satisfactory?

If we see death as a doorway to another life we remember what we have been taught about the judgement which is going to be made about us. Whether it is God the Father who is going to judge us or whether some unknowable Power which will decide our fate, we are helpless. It is easy to feel hopeless. How can we merit a passage to a better life?

Older people facing their own death have already encountered death many times, and so may have considered the questions of what ‘good’ and ‘death’ mean and how we should assess our life, and have used their wisdom and experience to arrive at an answer similar to that of my mother. But many older people are prevented from arriving at such an answer by their harsh, unforgiving conscience or by the bitterness and resentment which can arise when we think that we have been good but have been denied our just rewards.

Younger people facing their death find that these questions only add to their confusion about what has happened to them. Thus both young and old can need help to consider these questions and arrive at an answer which gives some measure of comfort and support. They are not helped by people who brush aside any doubts they might express with, ‘There, there, dear. You’re a wonderful person and everybody loves you.’ Nor are they helped by being presented with some packaged formula about forgiveness and salvation. In these ways many would-be helpers snub and belittle those who are dying because they themselves lack the courage to face these questions which show us only too clearly that there are no answers which give absolute certainty and infinite security. There is always a negative implication to every belief we might hold, and doubt is an integral part of the way we think.

What we need when we face these questions is someone who can listen to our doubts and anxieties without rushing to ‘make it better’, who can help us explore alternative answers to the questions, and who can face having those answers which they themselves have worked out thrown into doubt. It is unlikely that my mother ever encountered such a listener because she never talked about personal matters, but she had lived long enough to listen to herself and to allow herself in her last years to become much calmer, sweeter, more accepting than she had ever been. Then she could say that her life had been satisfactory.


The Courage to Live HarperCollins and Time on Our Side HarperCollins