This isn’t a fun question, but it’s an important one: What kind of death do you want? If you found out tomorrow that you had –God forbid–terminal lung cancer, and were given 6-8 months to live, how would you want to proceed? How do you feel about respirators, tracheotomies, feeding tubes, and bedpans? Are you an organ donor? Do hospitals make you anxious? Do you want to just keep trying treatments as long as is physically possible?
Now, try this: do you know how your parents would answer any of these questions? Do you know what’s most important to them? Is it quality of life? Is it lifespan? Is it making it to certain family events?
On Monday my mother would have turned 56. She died almost two years ago, in a hospital bed that was set up at our house. She was surrounded by family and sunshine when she died. She did not appear to be in any pain.
Dying is horrible any way you slice it. I volunteered at a hospice for a year before my mother was even diagnosed with cancer, and I have to say, it’s never easy to watch someone fade away. But watching someone die with his family, going peacefully is actually pretty beautiful, despite being horribly sad. We are all going to die, and we don’t all get to plan it exactly the way we want, but most of us will have enough warning that we can and should plan to do it on our terms. Maybe it’s crazy, but I’m 26 and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I want to die. For the record, if I get a choice, I want to go at home, with my family, not in pain.
This can be (but obviously doesn’t need to be) a Jewish issue. We have some articles on MJL about writing your ethical will, and planning for your death. And certainly a lot of people are guided by their faith when they make decisions about healthcare. But at its crux, this is a human issue. What do you want your experience of death to be?
There’s a famous story in the Talmud of the death Rabbi Judah HaNasi. He was very ill, and had already summoned his children and his students to give them final pieces of advice. R. Judah had a maidservant who prayed that he would be saved from death, but then she saw that he was constantly going to the bathroom and having to take off and put back on his tefillin, which was very painful for him. When she realized how much agony he was in, she changed her prayer, and wished that he would quickly take his way to the land of the angels. Meanwhile, all of R. Judah’s students were busy praying fervently for his life. The maidservant took a pot and threw it on the ground, where it shattered and made a loud noise. The noise distracted the students from their prayers, and in that moment the soul of R. Judah departed.