Dying to Talk

The spectacle of death
The spectacle of death

On a single day last week, we were stunned by news of the Charlie Helbo attack in Paris and a bomb going off at an NAACP office in Colorado. At the same time, this day was no different than any other: our media regularly saturates us with stories of death and violence. In her prophetic book All About Love, bell hooks describes this phenomena as a symptom of America’s death-obsessed culture. She says, “It may very well be that…the constant spectacles of dying we watch on television screens daily, is one way our culture tries to still that fear [of death], to conquer it, to make us comfortable.” Our culture’s efforts to comfort us and conquer our dread depict deaths that are sudden, faceless, and violent. This ultimately deepens our anxiety about death.

The day before, in my role as rabbi of the VNA-Hospice of Philadelphia, I gave a blessing to the social workers, nurses, administrators, and chaplains with whom I work. Words of blessing came easily as I beheld a roomful of people engaged in holy work. The hospice staff regularly facilitates family conversations about what is important to loved ones at the end of their lives, and does its best to care for the dying according to their desires. My coworkers and I often need to initiate these conversations because, as hooks writes, “The more we watch spectacles of meaningless death, of random violence and cruelty, the more afraid we become [of death] in our daily lives.”

We feed our anxiety when we only hear about death “out there” and deny it is also part of our story, and can even be a meaningful and peaceful part of our story. A 2013 survey says that 90 percent of Americans believe it is important to discuss the way we want to live at the end of our lives while we are able, but less than 30 percent of us actually have had this conversation: Parents don’t want their adult children to worry about them; children don’t want to think their parents will ever die. Locked into a mutual conspiracy of denial, families wish they had spoken only when it is too late. A recent Institute of Medicine report notes that most people nearing the end of life are not “physically, mentally, or cognitively able to make their own decisions about care.” According to many doctors, how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is too afraid to have.

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Conversing about our wishes for end of life care does not have to be difficult

Fortunately, recent initiatives like The Conversation Project are shifting all of this. In collaboration with “Death Over Dinner”, adults of all ages have begun, over the last few years, to discuss their wishes for end of life care at a structured dinner party using guiding questions like, “How long do you want to receive medical care?”, “How involved do you want your loved ones to be?” and “What role do you want them to play?” Having these conversations over dinner, or tea – as long as we have them – improves our chances of receiving the type of care that we want, and helps decrease family discord should our families be called upon to make these difficult decisions for us. Perhaps, when we make the choice to confront our cultural anxiety and acknowledge the inevitability of our own death, we can give ourselves to love and to life more fully.

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