Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Tne Narrative of Our Lives

Let me mention again how curious it is that we have a final-moments narrative not only about repentance, but about whether a person's life was happy on this earth. If a person has a generally wonderful life, with friends, family, productive activity, health, and all the fixin's yet dies alone in a last few minutes of pain and confusion, or even a bit neglected and lonely over the final year at a ripe age because loved ones are far or have already died we feel that it's all so terribly sad.  In the opposite case, a person who was abused and struggled, suffered through bad health and general privation but comes in the final year to have come to a place of joy and acceptance we tend to think of it as a good life, solely because of the happy ending.  I don't think the books and movies trained us to this (though they might have), but the books and movies reflect what is already installed in our psyches.

How the story ends works backwards on our understanding.  Even as I find this not quite sensible, and even a little horrifying, I find the feeling in myself.  To die alone is seen as a great tragedy, but is it?  I might rather be left alone with my God myself - the rest of you will do fine without having to be there. There are worse terrors than being alone.

Is this so in all cultures or only Abrahamic ones, where the triumphant end to the spiritual story primes us to treat earthly life the same way?


james said...

Mary Beard's article popped up in my search. She blames the Greeks and Romans.

Death in battle was supposed to be a good death too, in a lot of cultures.

Remember "The Death of EveryMom"? I found the last scene--spoiler if you don't know it

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It rings true

Donna B. said...

"death never actually comes pretty"

I've witnessed a few deaths and that's an understatement. Three times I've cared 24/7 for relatives in hospice for a few months. Several other times, I've sat in hospital rooms waiting for the last breath. Expected or unexpected, it's never ever pretty.

I suspect if I want to leave pithy last words, I need to start composing them now even though I have no intention of dying anytime in the near future. Considering that some silly financial company just gave me a 30 year mortgage, apparently I'm in better health than I thought. Even with 30 years to go, I should be thinking hard about those last words since I got rid of the piano 2 years ago.

So far, the best last words I can come up with are "Since you wouldn't help me get rid of this junk while I was alive, I'm leaving it all to you. Have fun."

Grim said...

It's definitely true for the ancient Greeks, before the influence of the Jewish mode of thought. It's a mode that turns up in Herodotus' account of Croesus. In addition to Croesus' own life story, Solon cites this myth:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

And come to think of it, a Good Death was important in the Northern European cultures as well. I wonder it it has descended to any non-Christian/non-Jewish cultures in the present?

Texan99 said...

I'm inclined to think that the very end is dispositive, but less inclined to think that spending it alone is what's important.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Alone or accompanied, it's a small, probably random thing. It's not any measure of my life either way. Yet somehow, because we humans are driven to narrative, we think the last days or hours are a summation, like the final chapter of a book. Sometimes, it is. Yet mostly, the important moments occurred at any other part of our lives.

Grim said...

It's harder to say if the Northern Europeans felt that way before Christianity, or if it's Christian authors reading it in to the works they recorded for us. We have almost nothing (except Tacitus, who is imposing his own values as a Roman) that doesn't come through the Christian lens.

But it's not unreasonable to think it is there, since it was definitely there in the Greeks. There's no reason to think it wouldn't be there in the Goths or the proto-Norsemen.

james said...

When Dave Barry's father died, he wrote a personal column that ended:

So I go in for my last words because I have to go back home, and my
mother and I agree I probably won't see him again. I sit next to him
on the bed, hoping he can't see that I'm crying. I love you, Dad, I
say. He says, I love you too, I'd like some oatmeal.

So I go back out to the living room, where my mother and my wife
and my son are sitting on the sofa, in a line, waiting for the
outcome, and I say, He wants some oatmeal. I am laughing and crying
about this. My mother thinks maybe I should go back in and try to
have a more meaningful last talk, but I don't.

Driving home, I'm glad I didn't. I think: He and I have been talking
ever since I learned how. A million words. All of them final, now.
I don't need to make him give me any more, like souvenirs. I think:
Let me not define his death on my terms. Let him have his oatmeal.
I can hardly see the road.

Retriever said...

Donna, I am SO stealing your line! Ever since my brother and I had to clear out our parents' house with 52 years of crud in just one week, because we had to get back to this country, and had to empty the house for quick sale, I have been muttering to anyone who will listen "we NEED to get rid of stuff!". Here in this country we inherited stuff from a grandmother, my spouse's divorced parents (big houses) and other elderly relatives, not to mention our own stuff....Enough said...
I also agree with you on death rarely being pretty. Used to work in hospitals, not to mention visiting for church, and all the sick relatives. One often withdraws into oneself when in extremis, and it isn't necessarily that a person is heavily medicated or out of it. One might say that some people are consciously preparing to meet their Maker...some people I have visited have told me they spend a lot of time talking with God...but I've seen it in people who don't believe in any deity. Is it just fatigue with, and lack of patience with all the BS that all of us ambulatory types are fussing about. A kind of "Beam me UP Scotty!" I used to talk with people who, on the one hand, would talk about appreciating certain aspects of everyday life they had taken for granted before when they knew they were dying, but also about how they were reflecting on things and found their loved ones' prattle irritating or distracting at times. Also, some of them worried a lot about their loved ones and would find visits exhausting because they knew the loved ones were upset at their decline, so they would make a huge, exhausting effort to seem better or to hide the fact that they were in pain. And after a while it would feel like too much effort so they would either pretend to fall asleep or actually drift off. This is NOT to criticise devoted relatives visiting. Also, many people won't die until the relatives finally doze off or go home. Hollywood tells us that we will be or should be there as they "pass" (GOD, how I hate that word, don't know why) . Mostly, times it happens that way are when relatives and doctors rationalise giving an overdose of opiates to stop the person's breathing. Often with some outright lies about how "this will ease her breathing--" Perhaps, if by ease you mean stop. Not saying this may not be what the patient asked for or wanted, but a surprising number of people die when they are finally left to themselves. And then people blame themselves "he wouldn't have died if I hadn't gone off to get that sandwich..." when maybe they should ponder that perhaps (if a person consciously lets go) that moment of reaching out to God is really private. No one would interfere with a person praying, for example. Why then do we assume people want or need a gaggle of weeping hysterical people emoting about their own feelings at the moment when someone is lifted out of their painful body and into GOd's loving embrace? Not saying one should just leave a person alone, but I do think not hassling them.

Also, some of the dying people I have spoken to have suffered torments worrying about their needier relatives, and I think in our let it all hang out culture we might do well to remember that we should just shut up about our own feelings and concentrate only on the dying person. THEY, not we are the important ones. I know people who shriek like wailing banshees, "Don't leave me, I won't let you..." --how does this help a dying person? It just makes them feel worse about a situation they are not in control of...)

IMHO there is no right or wrong way to die. The person is often in agony or terror, so they must simply be loved, comforted, accepted exactly as they are and honoured. No simple matter. But there are some wrong ways to sit with the dying (and I have been guilty of them)

Texan99 said...

I wouldn't dream of prattling, let alone weeping or wailing, at a dying person. I do think it's important to be there, if only to offer an ice chip or glycerin Q-tip for cracked lips, until the dying person has actually lost consciousness. As long as he/she is conscious enough to talk, I'd like someone to be within hail, but not hovering or demanding anything. The morphine is trickier. Air-hunger is a terrible thing for a dying person to experience. Ideally we give just enough morphine to make it more bearable, but we all know that morphine also depresses breathing and will shorten the crisis. I don't find that very shocking when someone has gotten to the point of not being able to get enough air in to avoid air-hunger panic. If the dying person no longer is conscious enough to be suffering, well, then I think it's fine to leave well enough alone and be patient.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Air-hunger panic. So that's what it was.

Grim said...

I was sitting next to my father when he died. I was the only one who noticed when stopped breathing. At that point he had made clear his desire to die, so I just sat quietly while my mother and their old friends talked. I thought, in the last moments before his brain stops working, let him hear his wife and friends talking pleasantly. They can be upset later.

I think he spoke possibly his very last words to me, when I told him those friends had come. He said, “Did they?” As far as I know, he never said anything more.

Texan99 said...

Air-hunger panic is common with congestive heart failure.

Donna B. said...

My father died a week before his 92nd birthday, congestive heart failure a primary cause. He struggled with air-hunger panic for months before his death. This was treated with opiates, which certainly helped, but caused severe constipation. I do not understand why hydrocodone and morphine were encouraged as a comfort measure, but enemas were discouraged. I also do not understand why Valium and Ativan were not better utilized. My best guess is that the drug regimen is one that would be best if recovery were possible, but not best as comfort measures. I think I'm most bitter that he was denied relief from a pleural effusion because it is considered invasive and therefore not allowed while in hospice. Or, at least that's what we were told.

Donna B. said...

Retriever -- I actually got rid of most of the large stuff I inherited and accumulated. Since it wasn't feasible for me to itemize donations, I gave the receipts to my daughters and told them that was their inheritance. I don't think they used them.

What is still giving me headaches as I'm trying to downsize and organize my living space now is memorabilia and photographs. I want to discard sympathy cards and such from the funerals but can't quite bring myself to do it... yet. Perhaps someday. Maybe the day after I purge my utility bill files.

Texan99 said...

The hospice rules can be incredibly inhumane. Any procedure that relieves discomfort ought to be available, regardless of whether it might conceivably prolong life. The very idea of having a rigid distinction just because the chances are overwhelming that the illness will be terminal in the next few months. So many people refuse to consider hospice because they can't face that determination, or the risk that appropriate care will be withdrawn.

And yet for many patients I continue to believe hospice is the only sane option. Crazy system.

Donna B. said...

"Crazy system"

Yep. Hospice worked so very well for my step-mother. Her problems were pain from shingles and dementia from cancer spread to her brain. And most of the hospice caregivers were either related to her or had been a student of hers. Small town... plus we had the financial capability of 24/7 help along with 24/7 family care. It was ideal. Plus, she weighed only 100 lbs.

Ten years later, a different hospice service was not nearly so kind to my father. Same small town, but the "local" hospice no longer existed. Everyone was from 50 miles away. Again, 24/7 caregivers, plus me. But Dad was still over 6' and weighed 180 lbs. And he didn't suffer from dementia -- which meant he was cognizant of everything and grumpy. He was able to get in and out of bed and to the bathroom until 2 days before he died with a little help.

Hospice is also available to nursing home patients I learned when my husband was "eligible" for it. I would have cared for him at home except that he could not walk. And his dementia was the violent kind. Violence and/or mobility issues land many people in nursing homes. The violent sort is more likely in males, I think.

Between my step-mother's death and my father's, I also experienced my son's and my brother's deaths. And then my husband's. I don't know for sure because there are so many variables, but my suspicion is that hospice works much better for women because they weigh less and they are more easily "controlled".