Modern medicine makes it hard to die. Not that it’s physically hard to die. Plenty of people do that every day from illnesses ranging from the mundane to the mysterious.
No, what modern medicine makes hard is simply letting nature take its course. That’s because, whether it means to or not, modern medicine always holds the promise of a cure. If you just try this medication or this treatment or this clinical trial then a miracle could be right around the corner.
Modern medicine is fantastic. I am forever grateful for the extra time it gave me with my husband. But it can also back terminally ill people into a corner. It makes them feel like they need to keep trying for a cure until they die. If they don’t want to do it for themselves then they feel as though they have an obligation for their family and loved ones.
While I don’t think anyone shouldn’t try to exhaust all options if that’s what they want, I also don’t think anyone should feel as though they need to try everything. I say that as the wife of someone who for all practical purposes “gave up.” And I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed about. On the contrary, I think it’s ok to die if you’re ready to do so.
About the Language We Use
When someone is battling a serious illness, we use a lot of inspirational language. We talk about people being courageous and brave. They are fighters. They won’t give up. Someday, they will be survivors.
I realize this type of language can be very encouraging to some, but please know that it can also put tremendous pressure on the person in question. If everyone is telling you how much of a fighter you are and how you’ll beat the odds, it makes it hard to opt out of treatment. Think about it: if people fighting cancer are courageous and you decide to enter hospice, does that make you a coward?
This is something that has weighed heavily on my mind for quite some time. I know everyone means well, but I worry that we may be inadvertently placing significant stress on our loved ones by expecting them to fight their illness to the bitter end.
This is especially true when children and teens are involved. As a parent, I can’t imagine not doing everything possible to keep my child alive, but at the same time, I wonder about what quality of life these children have and what pressure they feel when Mom and Dad insist they are fighters who won’t quit. I imagine it puts them in a position where they don’t feel like they can tell their parents that they don’t want to travel to one more clinic or try one more experimental drug.
Encouraging those with serious and terminal illnesses is a good thing, but we should take care that our words don’t have unintended consequences.
Going Gently Into That Good Night
Poet Dylan Thomas seems to sum up nicely modern thinking of death:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Accepting death isn’t something to be done quietly and submissively. It is something to be fought tooth and nail.
My perspective is different. Of course, there is no indication I’ll be leaving the land of the living any time soon so maybe my opinion is not worth much. However, I did walk with someone who decided to go gently into that good night, and I can tell you there are no regrets.
Entering hospice was among the best things my husband did during his three year encounter with esophageal cancer. It meant giving up on a miracle. It meant he wasn’t try to buy more time with us. There was anger and rage at first, but in the end, there was peace and acceptance and so many good memories.
My husband did get some pushback from concerned friends about failing to try different avenues for a cure. Why couldn’t he just try this supplement? Why didn’t he call that other hospital?
At one point, I heard about a cancer center that would fly you to their clinic and put you up in a nice hotel in exchange for a no-obligation consultation. I half-jokingly told my husband that we should do that to get a free vacation.
Tom’s response was: “I don’t want to spend the time I have left chasing a cure that doesn’t exist. I want to be here with my family.”
That’s what he did. Living day-to-day with someone you know won’t there a year later is hard. I can only imagine what it was like on his end, but I can say with absolute certainty that those were the best months of our marriage, perhaps because we were living every day like it could be our last.
And when the time came, Tom didn’t rage against the dying of the light. He died in his own bed with his wife and daughter lying by his side. He wasn’t in a hospital room. He wasn’t hooked to machines. He wasn’t surrounded by strangers.
This is what going gently into that good night looked like for my husband.
Don’t let anyone make you think you are somehow less of a hero for choosing death. I can think of nothing more admirable and courageous than facing your mortality head-on with chin held high.
If that’s what you want to do, talk to your loved ones, talk to hospice and don’t feel guilty about not raging against the dying of the light.