Death: The Final Frontier?
The Grim Reaper Cometh
Death and Dying
The sooner we make peace with our own mortality, the more joyous life will be. There are few greater tragedies in life than coming to the end of life and saying, “My life is ending, and I haven't even lived yet.”
Once we begin to see death is a great motivator, helping us to make the most of our days, then we will cease to see death only as an unhappy end to life. Death becomes nothing more than a deadline. Once we accept the reality of death, we can enjoy the reality of living.
For some, the matter of life and death is settled by committing their lives to Christ. It becomes a moment of intense emotion, and spiritual uplift. But most experience that moment as a quiet, conscious, deliberate decision without any fanfare.
Death and Dying
“I am a Christian,” Kevin said. “I believe in heaven. I don't think death is the end, just a gateway to a better life. But I like the life I have right now. Although heaven is on the other side, death is something that scares me intensely.”
His experience isn't unique. He illustrates a problem and challenge we all eventually face. One of the most important tasks we ever take in this life is coming to terms with our own death.
Only One Life to a Customer
In counseling experiences, it's often found people who have significant problems accepting the inevitability of their death have failed to come to terms with some aspect of their present or past life. They may be experiencing exaggerated fear about finances, relationship; or bitterness about mistreatment they suffered earlier in life. Or depression and guilt over some perceived failure in life.
Again and again, counselors see people who, as death nears, have clearly been unable to come to terms with their life or death. One example is a couple in their 80s who refused to make a will or any other preparations. In fact, they began stashing away their money as their end approached.
That's why we occasionally see stories in the news about some elderly person living in apparent poverty, collecting aluminum cans and eating canned cat food. Yet it's later discovered they had $100,000 hidden under the floorboards after they died. The irrational thinking behind such behavior is “If I can just save enough money, I can feel financially secure, and won't have to face the loss of my money or my life.”
Others practice a different brand of hoarding: they try to control every aspect of their health. They become vitamin fanatics, read everything they can find about longevity, buy out health food stores and try all the life extension fad diets. They may even arrange to have their bodies quick frozen in liquid nitrogen in the hopes of being revived after a cure is found for the illness killing them.
This kind of fanatical preoccupation is a form of denial. Meanwhile, the mortality rate remains 100%, no matter how healthy we may be. While some hang on to their money or health, others cling to relationships, usually a son or a daughter. The over-involvement of a relationship is likely to be magnified as a person approaches death. It's as if they reason, “I can't really lose everything as long as I have this relationship.”
Others hold on to wilted, faded dreams of a future never to be, a life contingent upon “if and when,” always waiting for life to start. For example, they may think,
“When I graduate from high school, I'm going to live it up.” In college, they anticipate, after graduation, life will begin with that perfect job.” After college they dream about finding just the right person and getting married.” And so on, With the final contingency being, “When I retire….” Finally, they wake up, realizing, life has passed them by, and they are still waiting for life to begin.
The key to serenity and emotional security as we live out our lives and approach death is to recognize there is only one life to a customer, and this is it. Life isn't a dress rehearsal.
Those who fail to come to grips with this, tend to live in a world of denial. Then the inevitability of death finally arrives, a heart attack, diagnosis of inoperable cancer, or some other “death sentence.”
Such people often get stuck grieving the loss of their own lives. They may spend their last days raging against God and others. Or they may get stuck in the bargaining phase, desperately pleading with God to release them from the natural fate awaiting the entire human race.
Death: the Great Motivator
The proper function of man is to live, not just exist. How about you? Are you making your life count for something lasting and important? Are you conscious of how little time you have left on this planet, and are you doing everything possible to make each moment count? Death is coming for all of us.
A frightening truth? No. Properly viewed, it can energize and motivate us. Once time is gone, it's gone forever. You can't buy, bargain, bribe, or even pray it back. We all have a limited amount of time to live. When we become aware of that, then life becomes a precious commodity. This truth should drastically change the way we live and approach death.
Does this mean death should drive us to work harder, trying to get everything done before we die? No. In fact, being a workaholic is just another means some use to avoid the reality of death. Many feel if they just keep constantly busy, then unpleasant realities like death will just go away.
This isn't to suggest awareness of the transient nature of life should turn us into compulsive work addicts. Rather, it should motivate us to do everything we do, to the fullest: we should work and achieve, but also relax, enjoy recreation, enjoy our family, friends, and nature. Because, life is short, it must be used wisely and enjoyed.
Fear of Death
Counselors often encounter people, who believe in the reality of living, and yet haunted by a strong apprehension about death. Such are often found to have a strong fear of death and carry unresolved, unconscious fears about living.
Intellectually, we all know death is unavoidable. Emotionally however, we don't really believe it's going to happen to us. We spend our lives in denial of it. Deep down, we are convinced there's some way to dodge the Grim Reaper, and will find it before our time comes.
People seek to skirt issues not only about physical death, but also symbols of impending death. For example, age lines, failing health, dimming eyesight, hearing loss, and not being able to drive themselves. They cling to frayed and faded symbols of youth, denying the approaching end. Their attitudes and behavior, at least on an unconscious level, represent a way to dodge death. These attitudes and behaviors include:
Hypochondria. Hypochondriacs constantly imagine they are afflicted with some illnesses or inflate existing ones. The symptoms are real, but they are caused by emotions and stress, not physical problems. Hypochondria is also a way to grieve one's death before it arrives. The hypochondriac is able to experience death over a period of time, complaining as they prepare for “the big one.” Clearly this isn't a healthy way to grieve one's mortality. It steals our happiness, and escalates anxiety. Hypochondria is a maladaptive response, meaning, self-defeating, and unhealthy behavior, about the inevitability of death.
Bitterness, anger, and cynicism. Tragically, these emotions are quite, common among the elderly. We all have a choice to determine our own attitudes. But some, as they approach death, seem hell-bent for leather on rejecting serenity. It's as if they view an accepting attitude as a form of surrender, an admission of defeat. Bitterness, anger, and cynicism become a way of avoiding the reality of death, by raging against the unfairness of life, death, and God. People are able to avoid having authentically to mourn and feel the sadness and loss their own death brings. The resentful response is yet another maladaptive response to the inevitability of their own death.
Suicide. People may kill themselves quickly or slowly, aggressively or passively. It matters little whether a person uses a bullet, stops eating, or refuses to take prescribed medication. As bizarre as it may sound, suicide is often a way people choose to dodge the inevitability of death. There is actually a certain irrational logic to it. Why does a person choose to die in order to avoid the reality of death? To accept this reality means to accept the brevity and transience of life. In other words, the person who accepts death is able to appreciate and cherish it.
Those who accept the transitory nature of life are good stewards of every waking moment, and live sensibly and confidently. But many take the attitude, “The permanence of life is so frightening to me the only way I can handle it is to shorten it deliberately.” They selfishly inflict death upon themselves and misery upon their loved ones.
Flight. Greg had been married 45 years, when he suddenly left his wife. Surprisingly he was unable to explain why. Finally, after weeks of counseling, the answer was exposed: he was terrified of death. Greg had never made peace with his own mortality. This problem went back to his childhood. Greg had seen how difficult it was for his father to say goodbye to his wife dying of cancer. Now the scenario was being replayed. Flight is another maladaptive attempt to dodge death. Have you made peace with your own mortality?
If you fear death, there are two possible explanations:
You may not have resolved all of your fears about living.
You may not have made peace with God.
What Is Your View of Death?
Which of the following statements describe your attitude and feelings toward death?
“I am fully prepared for my own death. Whenever the time comes.”
“I look forward to saying hello to God.”
“I know Jesus has saved me from my sins.”
“I'd rather die now then live another year with this physical suffering.”
“Death is the absolute horror, the final end. I would do anything to avoid it.”
“I fear death, because I don't believe God can forgive me. I'm afraid of God's judgment.”
It's advisable, if you don't wish to be subjected to heroic life extension measures, to make your wishes known. There are several ways this can be done:
A durable power of attorney. With a durable power of attorney, you appoint someone to act on your behalf in regard to medical treatment. This legally appointed individual has the right to accept or refuse certain life-support measures for you in the event you become incapacitated. This document should be drawn up by an attorney in your state, and should name a person you trust with your life. Make sure this person clearly understands your wishes regarding medical treatment in an extreme case.
Living will. This is a legal document stating your wishes regarding medical treatment. A contains instructions, made in advance, so doctors will carry out your wishes in the event you are unable to. Most states have laws allowing individuals to leave a living will that can be invoked in the event of a terminal illness. Some states also allow the instructions of a living will to be invoked if the individual is in a persistent vegetative state and not expected to regain consciousness. Your wishes should be clearly stated.
“Do not resuscitate” (DNR) order. Many hospitals offer terminally or chronically ill patients the option of signing a DNR. It's placed in your file, and hospital personnel are made aware of it. Then, in the event of an emergency where you would normally be placed on a respirator or given cardiopulmonary resuscitation, these attempts would be suspended.
Dying entails a gradual secession of body processes, sometimes involving pain. It's normal to fear pain, weakness, and immobility, sometimes preceding the moment of death. Yet it's important to place it in a proper perspective.
However, there are some final arrangements to be considered before your life can come to a successful conclusion. First, you must make reconciliations is in your relationships. Words needing to be said, must be said, words of love, apology, or forgiveness. It's time to bring order out of disorder and say goodbye to your loved ones.
Second, you must put your house in order. If you haven't already done so, you should prepare a last will and testament. One third of Americans die without one. If that happens to you, the disposition of your estate is impersonally handled by the state, not you. In many states, a spouse will be awarded only one third of your estate, and children receive two thirds, unless you leave instructions to the contrary.
Third, you must give instructions regarding your medical care during the dying process. What sort of medical care would you want? If, for example, you were in a coma and unable to breathe on your own. Would you wish to be placed on a respirator, or simply slip away at that point?
Fourth, you must make plans for the final remembrance of your life. A funeral is a time of grieving, but it should also be a time when successful completion of a life is celebrated. Discuss with your spouse and those closest to you, what your funeral should be like.
Death is inevitable, but the fear of it isn't.
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