At the End of Life

From the Editorial Archive May 1998

From the Editorial Archive May 1998

At the End of Life
By David Sedgwick, Ph.D.

My stepfather said to me, some time before he died of heart disease, that he was "ready to die," that he felt he had led a full life, and that he did not want to go through further coronary surgery or be resuscitated to do so. He felt it would be difficult for my mother to go along with this but wanted my brother and me to remember it and support it.

I was stunned by this, by his straightforward look at his present and future, and admired his courage. I also felt, I realized later, not only sad at this anticipation of death but sad at this taking leave of us. He was saying goodbye and leaving us.

This is what we fear about others' death: being left alone. What we fear about our own death is being alone (this despite the truth that we will not be conscious of our aloneness). It is the fear of final separation.

In discussions of the "right" to life or death it sometimes gets lost that an expression such as my stepfather's is an expression of the sacredness of life. In early life, we cannot imagine giving it up, but in later life we can know that continued suffering and a life of further pain make life easier to give up. One can be ready to die, or prefer life to death, because one knows how sacred it once was.

It's too bad that such serious and tender issues seem to have been, at least on the public level, ensconced in the image of someone like Jack Kervorkian, this kooky Dr. Doom who drives around in a death van or something. The end of life, and the serious decision to end the sacred trust of one's life, deserve a better forum.

Copyright 1998 David Sedgwick. All rights reserved.