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November 19, 2013 at 1:44 PMComments: 1 Faves: 0

How Will You Face Death?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Deer season, buck fever. Like a lot of Midwesterners, Tim Bowers was in the woods hunting a buck last week. According to his family, he was an avid outdoorsman, always in the woods. Sadly, it was there that tragedy struck. He fell out of his tree blind, severing his cervical (neck) spinal cord. He was severely paralyzed and required a machine to help him breathe. While doctors had him sedated, the magnitude of his injuries were tolled. He would never walk, never use his arms, and never breathe without the use of a machine. Tim was brought out of unconsciousness and told of his injuries and the consequences.

Understanding the issues, Tim decided to end the mechanical support that was keeping him alive. Not only was this a difficult decision personally, but Tim was also recently married and his new bride was pregnant with their first child. Regardless, he did not want to live this way. He spent time with his family, support was removed, and he died soon thereafter.

In my work as a doctor, I often face mortality alongside patients. Some do this better than others. This blog will discuss the prospect of facing our own mortality.

Running Away

My two-year old is coming to despise bedtime. She formulates excuses, bargains, and sweeps the issue under the rug. Some people approach their own mortality in much the same way. They leave this world kicking and screaming. On the positive side, these are the fighters - those who beat disease and go the extra distance to find the cure. On the negative, they tend to prolong the inevitable, always looking for an out or a loophole. It's common for such people, faced with perilous odds to not even consider death as a possibility having swept it under the rug. 

Running Toward

I'll never forget the scene from the movie The Perfect Storm where George Clooney's character tells his crew to head their boat full steam into the monster wave that is sure to envelope them.  They turned and faced their fate. Words like "noble", "brave," and "courageous" come to mind.  I think that Tim Bowers would definitely fit in this category. All things considered, a dignified death seems the best outcome. People in this group have often sewn their oats and have been able to say what needed to be said in life. They are utilitarians, weighing things out for the most good in an outcome. 

Making Peace

Facing death is best done without regrets. In observing the passing of loved ones and patients, I have found that those who approach the end of their lives with the most peace are those who know that their dependents will be alright and that have no regrets or loose ends. As death can come unexpectedly, it seems right to act as though it may be around the corner. While we hope to live long and healthy lives, it is wise to do as the good farmer does, "pray for rain and prepare for drought." In other words, hope for longevity but prepare for the end. Settle quarrels, express feelings, reckon with your faith.

Considering Your Own Death

At the risk of appearing trite, you will die. Everyone does. It's not morbid to ask yourself what you would do if you were diagnosed with cancer, were told you had six months to live, were faced with the prospect of life on a ventilator. Preparing makes you just that - prepared.

For me, literature has been an excellent way to face the prospect of my own mortality.  Well-written stories can transport the reader into the mind of a person facing death. The two best works I have encountered are The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy and Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom.

In conclusion...

Throughout time, man has feared the grim reaper. To some, death is an unknown end, often preceded by pain or sickness. To others, it is a transition. Regardless of approach, considerations as to our own death can allay anxieties and improve our experience with the inevitable. While some run from death and some face it head-on, I feel a balanced approach is most appropriate, fighting the fight and being prepared to cut the strings if the circumstance warrants. Communicate your desires regarding these issues to your loved ones. And while you are alive, don't hesitate to live life to the fullest!

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1 Comment

  • Beautifully written. I thought that you had some poignant, thought-provoking ideas to share concerning a topic that a lot of people don't like to think about.

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