Tom Purcell: End-of-life challenges in modern times
A long time ago I watched a documentary about the life and writings of poet Emily Dickinson.
One thing I’ve never forgotten about this film is that she lived in a time when death was sadly common – and therefore the subject of many of her poems.
“How are you?” is a polite way to introduce us to each other now.
But, as I learned in this documentary, that greeting in Dickinson’s day meant, “Are you healthy and will you be with us tomorrow?”
Until modern times, death generally affected all age groups.
Women died during childbirth. The children died of various diseases.
Both rich and poor suffered tragedy and loss almost equally.
Haider Warraich, the doctor who wrote “Modern Death: How Medicine Has Changed End of Life”, explained in an interview that in the 1800s in Boston or London, people died mainly from three things: wounds, infections or some type of nutritional deficiencies. .
“Really,” he said, “death was a very binary event – and it was very sudden.
“For example, before the advent of medical technology, if someone had a heart attack or someone had a type of abnormal heart rhythm such as ventricular tachycardia, they would almost certainly die, in many cases instantly, sometimes even while sleeping.”
Warraich said dying today is no longer an “instantaneous flash event” but a “phase of our lives”.
New technologies allow people to live longer even if they have chronic diseases, so they come and go to the hospital, like my father was for five months.
Today we are disconnected from death, Warraich said.
We have moved death from our homes and communities to hospitals and nursing homes – where four out of five Americans now die.
When my father’s father died at just 34 in 1937, he died in his own bed of strep, now easily cured with penicillin, and lay in the living room of his house.
We hoped that my father would end up peacefully in his own house.
After repeated visits to the hospital and skilled nursing facilities, we took him home and hired our own care.
We celebrated his 89th birthday at his house a few weeks ago in epic fashion. A glorious event, it was attended by the large extended family that he and my mother produced.
When his time finally came, he was back in the hospital, but he had been surrounded by his family and his wife for almost 66 years.
As technological advancements change the way we live and die, we fear death, but it’s something each of us will experience.
I am honored to say that my sisters and my mother and I fully embraced my father’s life and supported him with everything we had during his painful final months.
Knowing that he is at peace now eases the pain of seeing him in so much pain for so long.
I believe he is now in heaven, reunited with his parents, and I believe I will see him again.
I will patiently await this great meeting.
“How are you?” is the question of the moment.
I wish you the best if you are now at the end of your life or caring for someone you love who is – as you face the challenges of death in modern times.
Library freelance writer Tom Purcell is the author of ‘Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood’. Visit it on the web at TomPurcell.com.