Death Defying not Death Denying

Post Written By Kathy Kastner

Death Denying: it’s meme that describes our ability to accept that we’re going to die: we neither want to talk about it, nor concede it could even happen to us.

I submit that denying death is nothing new.

We’ve been denying death forever.

Consider death in my (late) mother’s childhood: there were no infant incubators to give preemies and sickly newborns a chance at life, no antibiotics to eradicate infections, diabetes was death sentence, none of the vaccines that made history of childhood diseases had been discovered, and heart and lung disease felled the mightiest.

Death came early and frequently. However, while death may have been a daily companion that doesn’t mean the rules of communication were any different than now.

Then, the dying person was never ever told he or she was dying. It was considered bad form, bad manners and a bad omen. Physicians, nurses, aides and relatives. No one spoke to the dying person of the end being nigh. Whether or not this was morally or ethically right was never in question. It was thought to be humane. Thoughtful. Sensitive. Sparing feelings.

Back then if someone was intolerably suffering (the criteria now applied to physicians assisting dying) ‘mercy killing’ was considered a relief for all parties.

Medical Advancements challenge us to defy death.

Today’s reluctance to talk about dying and death isn’t the result of denying death. Instead it’s modern medicine’s advancements that has us defying death at every opportunity.

Feeding tubes, breathing machines, dialysis, transplants: each with the promise of longer life no matter what the quality or the ‘harms’.

And therein is the rub: one person’s harm is another’s relief.

The present hasn’t yet left the past behind – when the scope and definition of ‘harm’ wasn’t limited to leeches and removing part of the brain.

Today’s harms are often considered the price to stay alive. Often it’s not even the patient who comes to that conclusion. It’s the healthcare professionals or loved ones well meaning tho they may be.

In a recent consultation on implementation of Physician Assisted Dying, made legal by Canada’s Supreme Court, there was much heated discussion about a Brave New World giving doctors and institutions a License to Kill. The pejorative description, “Physician Assisted Suicide” spat through clenched teeth. Healthcare professionals in the room fairly vibrated with upset at the notion that they could be conduit for ending a life when surely their role is to do no harm.

How different the intent from days not so long ago: did any of the healthcare professionals with their unwashed hands and un-sterilized instruments intend harm?

Pressure to stay alive at all costs.

At the PAD consultation was the president of the Right to Die Society.

Said she, amongst the wails of offing grandma for convenience sake.

“Being pressured to live – as many are – is as much a crime as you think it is to help a suffering person to end their suffering.

Our collective aversion to talking about life’s end is not about denying death. It’s about the hope, the promise, the expectation that modern medicine can Defy Death. Who knows what miracles await, if you can just stay alive long enough.