Sunday, April 24, 2016
The meaning of Life, Aging & The Final Death Part 3: The Final Death
You might wonder at what I mean by the final death, is death not final? It is, at least to some of us, but it is not the first “death”. Death is an ending, a change, whether you believe that death is the end or just the end of phase and into another. Personal beliefs withstanding, death is a rather large change, a loss of who we are. It is my belief that we suffer many deaths throughout our lives. Who we are changes, leaving our former self behind as only a memory. Is that not death?
Those who work in fields where they see a great many awful things all of the time call this “losing pieces”. People like medical examiners, police officers, those in the army, 911 dispatchers, emergency room professionals and many more. But, this often extends to the average person, who might watch a loved one die or become something totally different, might experience severe trauma, or go through some other experience that entirely changes who they are at a core level. The “little deaths” of life take a heavy toll. So, when I speak of physical death, I call it the final death. The death past which there are no more deaths.
The final death is the end of life, in all that it encompasses. Sometimes, it is sudden and sometimes, it is long in coming. Always, it ends the same. In my field of study, I am perhaps more acquainted with it than most. The cold tables with the bodies laid out, the hollow human shell of a once living person, emptied of all that made it work regardless of age, race or social standing. The bones, carefully studied for signs of trauma or harm. We all end up in the same place, in the same ground or as ash.
Some of us fear death, this final ending and its total lack of meaning. We come from the earth and are returned to it, concluding our cycle of life. We feed and then we become food. We live then die, we are no more and all that was us is gone. As we age, we become less fearful of dying and more fearful of the life we lived, more concerned with having a good life before we go. I often tell my children that we are memories. All that is left behind is memories, be it in words, books and monuments, structures or even just in the minds and hearts of those we were close to. In the end, we are memories, evoked by a sight, sound or smell, by a touch. We seek to soak up as much of what we feel is truly important before we go and to leave a lasting impression upon the world in which we lived. Memories, they are our immortality, what we leave behind that will last far beyond our death regardless of circumstance. No one wants to be forgotten.
It is to death that I am dedicating my life, in service of life. The study of death, to become a voice for the voiceless and a champion for those who left this world unfairly. As such, this is my realm, the one I am most comfortable with and yet, the most uncomfortable with. I will not treat living patients once I graduate, see them grow old and care for their ailments or concerns. I will instead see them when all life is gone, when they are memories and will do my best to answer the questions that they leave behind. The ethics involved in death are just as those in life. Do no harm, have respect for the person that they once were and for those left behind in the wake of their death. How can one do harm to the dead? We can overlook evidence of death, we can be disrespectful or uncaring which brings harm to the living family members, we can accidentally destroy evidence that would have brought answers, we can be mistaken about how and why. Even in death, medical professionals must remain ethical, careful and compassionate. To bring understanding, some peace and some small solace if possible with answers. Truth, to not divert from the truth, whatever it may be. The truth of what happened, of what can be determined and of what we leave behind us.
Past death, we lose focus on simply keeping them safe and alive for we are past that point. In death, do professionals become most caring, most compassionate and most reverent of the person that was. If we could become as caring of their whole being before this point, we will truly make great progress in patient care. Perhaps, before death, we cannot see the forest for the trees. In a man tracking course I took, we often overlooked obvious signs above the ground because we were so focused on the ground. I believe that health care faces the same problem, especially with the elderly. We focus so much on keeping them alive that we forget about who they are as a person and what they really need and how important that is. In death, we remember that we are working with a once living person with hopes and dreams, that it could have been any of us.
The most important words ever stated to me thus far in my learning have been, "the people you will see tomorrow are walking around right now, today". Such simple words that carry such deep meaning. Tomorrow, some one will be on that table and what will be left behind is a carcass and memories. It makes one think deeply on life, on what kind of life you live, and on the memories you will leave behind. I think, to understand life, one must study death. To see the importance of living and the important things in life, we must first see the finality of the end. Perhaps, some small glimpse of this is what we see as we age, what changes our priorities and our needs. Perhaps, we do not know what is it to live until we near death, the end of it all.