Let’s Talk about that 400lb Gorilla

Everybody has one

And most of us have the same Gorilla that lurks around the periphery of our lives: one we all have to face but no one wants to talk about. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, the Gorilla’s identity won’t come as a huge shock.

Gorilla, thy name is Death.

Not only do we all have to face it for ourselves, we have to face it – survive through it – for many of those we love during our lifetimes. When someone we love dies, we have to find a way to pick our broken selves up and continue living, despite the pain – the often searing, indescribable pain – and the gaping hole that death has left in our lives.

We all understand – at least intellectually – that death is the sole, constant, unavoidable certainty that not one of us, rich or poor, can escape. (Yet. God forbid.) And yet, as a culture bent on “self-improvement,” the one thing that happens, predictably, over and over, day in and day out, every single day, literally thousands of times a day, we mostly SUCK at.

I have a simple theory about why that is, though I will save that for a future missive. In fact, I have a lot of thoughts on this topic. I’m still trying to organize all of them in a way that makes this, one of the most taboo subjects in our culture, compelling, accessible, and engaging in a way that puts our 400lb Gorilla on a diet for the ages, and shrinks it down to something we can face, and even embrace, in a healthy way.

Not now. Not today.

We know it’s going to happen to us eventually, but not today, right? So we don’t have to think about it. We don’t have to deal with it. Not today. Shouldn’t we be focused on more important things, like that big meeting? What to do about that package that got ripped off from our front porch? Making sure the rent or mortgage gets paid on time?

It’s a neat trick our minds play on us – when we fear something, we avoid it. The avoidance allows us to fool ourselves into thinking that it doesn’t exist, so the immediate fear responses go away.

We distract ourselves with the endless array of enticements served up on the platter of our ever-ready-to-serve corporate/consumer complex. With social media. With comparing ourselves to everyone else, both consciously and unconsciously. Better keep up. Or else.

I’m not in any way saying that we shouldn’t, or don’t have to, focus on those “more important” things. But I am saying that if we aren’t willing to think about, talk about, and really face the inevitability of death, we’re sitting ducks for all the distractions our world has to offer. And that’s where we really start to lose.

Our fear of death is ruining our lives

How many times do we have to see the sad wake of the death of someone important in the life of a friend or acquaintance – the admonitions to tell your friends and family how important they are to you; to live every day as if it were your last; that you never know when it’s going to be your time, or theirs? It’s always so crystal clear when it happens close to you.

And yet. Our ability to continue to live that way is inversely proportional to how close to us the death event happened to be. We slide, too easily, back to worrying more about how we look in a selfie than what will happen to everyone in our lives if we’re unlucky enough for today to be our last day.

Billions of dollars in our economy are taken in by manufacturers of youth-“preserving” goods and services to thwart death and everything associated with or suggesting its existence. Worse than the money is the time. The insidious, creeping seconds that become minutes that pile into hours of our days; hours that we lose down rabbit-holes of self-absorption. Healthier, better-looking, stronger, fitter . . . Keep up with the Joneses – better cars, a nicer house; more, more, more.

Not that we shouldn’t want to better ourselves – getting or staying healthy, for example, is important for many more reasons than simply staving off death. But the cultural obsession with all of it is both symptom and root cause.

Whether we recognize these activities as a symptom of the fear of death or not, ultimately, that’s really what it’s about. And this collective superficiality, I would argue, is a major cause (not THE major cause, but one of them) of our spiraling issues with mental health, substance abuse, even just the vague, lurking malaise so many now suffer.

Never mind the practical negative impact on families

My current set of life circumstances force my sister and me to confront the notion of death every day. Regular readers know that both of my parents have dementia; dad has been on hospice for nine months, and a low-angle trajectory towards death, for four-plus years now. Mom is currently experiencing a period of steep decline in cognitive function.

Because I write about the realities of this world, I hear from a lot of readers about their own challenges with loved ones in decline. But the people I hear from also share stories of alarming dissent and discontent from their family members regarding their situations and the painful impact of denial. See if either (or both) of these two, all-too-common, stories sound(s) familiar to you:

1) Unprepared “patient”

Older parent or loved one has been experiencing some issues (health, cognitive decline, both, whatever). One or more children or other loved ones notice(s) and attempts to discuss with the “patient.” Patient does one or a combination of the following: brushes it off, argues, denies anything is wrong; says they don’t need any help; refuses to engage in any meaningful way.

Eventually, of course, the situation declines to the point where denial by the patient is no longer really possible. Sometimes this is a slow, painful downslope. Often, it’s one which, had frank conversations occurred beforehand, mitigating care and other interventions could have been provided, lessening the pain and suffering for everyone: patient and loved ones, physical and/or emotional. Other times, unfortunately, it takes the form of something “sudden” and catastrophic (major cardiac event, stroke, etc.), leaving patient unable to direct their own care.

Thus unprepared, loved ones and caregivers are left to guess at care (and yes, end-of-life) preferences, often leading to . . .

2) Warring siblings/relatives

Oh, let me count (just a few of) the ways:

  • fights over whether dad is really (fill in your condition of choice) and why he does/doesn’t need more help;
  • battles over housing situations and whether or not safety is a concern;
  • selfish squabbles that really boil down to spending often-limited resources on care (which – gasp – are essentially about “what’s going to be left for me?!“);
  • re-emergence of decades-old, but impossibly ingrained childhood pecking-order rivalries;
  • barely-disguised, seething anger directed at “dad” or “mom” because now we really have a situation, and we’re fighting about what to do.

Everyone will have an opinion, but no one will really have the answers because NO ONE EVER WANTED TO TALK ABOUT IT.

So, some unsolicited advice

1) STOP.

Just freaking stop.

Breathe.

In and out.

2) Look around you.

Count whatever blessings you have, however meager you may think they are, every day. Acknowledging them forces you out of the rabbit-hole (see above), and, like rabbits, those blessings do tend to multiply once you start paying attention to them.

3) Remember

And work, to alter your daily mindset to surround and confront the UNDENIABLE TRUTH that you don’t get to live forever (nor would it be a good idea to even live to be 150 – a topic for a future post). Tomorrow – hell, today – could be it. Seriously. Stop wasting your time on superficial shit. Get ruthless about how you spend your time, and spend it wisely.

4) For the love of GOD, write a will

And medical advance directives. And powers of attorney. You will not regret this, EVER. Nor will everyone left reeling (or possibly feuding forevermore, and irreparably fractured) in the wake of your certain demise.

5) Lose your fear of hospice care

Hospice is one of the greatest things ever created to support both patients AND FAMILIES with transitioning as peacefully and comfortably through death as possible. Hospice WILL NOT KILL YOU. (News flash: you’re dying anyway.) Hospice will comfort you. It will pay for things you would otherwise have to pay for out of your own pocket. It will provide amazing, compassionate teams of people who are there for one thing only: making the (sometimes very long, very slooooooooow) process of dying as bearable as possible.

So don’t be stupid about this. Save yourself, and your loved ones, some actual money, and as much difficulty as possible. If you have the choice (i.e. if you didn’t die in a sudden, tragic event), do it. Ask a hospice care agency whether (or when) you qualify. The sooner the better, once you or a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal condition.

6) Also, STOP NOT TALKING ABOUT IT.

Talk about death. With your family, and/or everyone close to you who will be impacted by your death. Early, and often. It doesn’t have to be morbid. Entire cultures/traditions have perfected the acceptance and even celebration of death as the very real fact, and transitional event, that it is. (One life-changing, perception-shattering book for me, years ago, was The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.)

Face your fear, and it will begin to wither. I promise you. Talk about it with an open heart, and with all the love and hopes you have for the ones who will go on living. Their lives will be better for it when you’re gone. Let this be a part of your legacy.

We should be talking about and planning for our deaths with at least the same vigor and attentiveness we’d give to the planning for our 50th (or 100th!) birthday party (or our kid’s ridiculous one-year birthday party, or a wedding, or any other big event in our lives).

Because some of these other events may not occur in your life, but your death certainly will.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about that 400lb Gorilla

  1. Thank you once again Marco!! I hadn’t considered shopping it to any publications but that is a good idea (even if I have no idea how to do that…!)

  2. Marcia. I very sincerely hope you consider shopping this to various popular magazines and similar media. It is too well thought out, organized, accurate, informative, and necessary to let it just float out into electron heaven or the quarkosphere. You are a gifted and compelling writer, anticipating the Yeah,buts and answering questions even as they form.

    As you know, people fear dying far more than they fear being dead. Which is why so many people say they want to die in their sleep. When I hear someone say that I chide them with, You study all your life for the final exam and you want to sleep through it?

    Important work like yours makes me want to read while there is time.

    1. I’m also planning to post it on Medium, where I have a slightly different audience (with a few notable exceptions ;-)) than I do here and on my various social media accounts.

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