Articles about Spirituality
The key to a good death, the speaker on the subject of “compassion in dying,” told the audience is “making the most of each day.” She also expressed it as “living life to the fullest” and “living in the moment,” and mentioned something about “having fun” during those last days. The audience, which included mostly hospice workers, nodded its assent, as if the speaker had provided new wisdom.
My reaction at the end of the presentation was one of bewilderment as the speaker never once touched upon the spiritual aspects of dying. She never even alluded to the possibility that consciousness survives physical death. I later found out that, even though it is the most important issue relating to a dying person, hospice policy discourages such discussions.
I wondered what a dying person should do to “make the most of each day” and “have fun.” Should he or she plan an around-the-world trip? Go to Vegas? Engage the grandchildren in games? What if the person does not have enough physical strength to leave his or her bedroom or house? What if the person is already doing pretty much everything he or she can to make the most of each day?
I began to daydream and envisioned myself as a hospice patient with just days or weeks to live. I was standing in the middle of the main room. There were seven other people in the room Four of them were sitting in front of a TV set, while two were playing checkers and one was reading. I wandered over to the TV group and noted that they were watching “Dr. Phil,” who was talking with members of a typical American family, the father being an alcoholic, the mother a hundred pounds overweight, their 19-year-old son unemployed and a drug addict, and their 15-year-old daughter seven months pregnant. I wondered how I might enjoy this program and was curious as to how the others were incorporating it into this wise philosophy of making the most of the moment. When I looked around, two of the four were sleeping, apparently feeling the effects of their pain medication. Of the two who were awake, one had her head hanging, eye lids at half mast and lip drooping while staring off into space. The one person in front of the TV was a man. He was smiling and seemingly enjoying the program. I asked him if he found the program entertaining. He replied in the affirmative, explaining that seeing the world so screwed up makes it easier for him to accept death.
I asked the woman who was reading what the book was all about and she responded that it was a romance novel. Clearly, living in the moment, for her, meant an escape from reality, which is pretty much what all fictional stories are. Just then the hospice director walked into the room and yelled out, “Is everyone having fun?” There was a moan and a groan, to which the hospice director cheerfully reacted, “Great! Don’t forget bingo after dinner.”
Part of the problem with the world today, I believe, is that “fun” has replaced “happiness” as one of life’s main goals.
I walked over to the two checker players, who were just finishing up a game. One of them was tired and needed to go to his room and give himself a shot, so the other one asked me if I wanted to join him for a game. I sat down and played a game, but all the while I played I kept wondering what difference does it make if I win or lose this game. If I win, so what? If I lose, so what? When I’m dead will it make any difference that I won a game of checkers? My checkers opponent mentioned that his daughter and grandson had paid him a visit the day before. I asked him if they had a good visit. He sort of shrugged and said his daughter brought her lap top and spent the whole time making a list of his assets while his grandson went off in a corner to tweet his friends and play games on his iPod while hardly speaking to him.
I walked outside and saw one of the patients painting a landscape. She said she was going to give it to her son to hang in his house and hoped that he would pass it on to future generations as part of her legacy. I could envision the son hanging it in an out-of-the-way corner of a spare bedroom or in the laundry room, noticing it a few seconds every month, but then I had a vision of the son dying and the grandchildren, covered in tattoos and with their noses, tongues, and lips all pierced with jewelry, selling the painting at a garage sale. There also, in a box of frames, selling for 50 cents each, was a photo of old grandma. So much for her legacy! So much for her progeny!
I walked around to the other side of the house and met a middle-aged man who was puffing away on a cigarette and looking quite weary and nervous. I started up a conversation with him and found out that just before being admitted to hospice he had, after being told that he had only months to live, taken the trip of a lifetime to various foreign countries. He consorted with many women of easy virtue, got drunk every night, and had a ball. It was eat, drink, and be merry. But it was all over now and he had to face up to dying. I asked him about his spiritual beliefs and he said he had none. He didn’t believe that anything came after death, but reasoned that he would be extinct and wouldn’t know about it anyway. “So why worry about it?” he asked with a certain bravado, as he seemed to shake in his boots while stomping out his fourth or fifth cigarette and reaching for another one, fumbling it as he attempted to grasp it between his lips and light it.
I returned to the painter and asked her about her spiritual beliefs. She said that her pastor told her that she would sleep in her grave until some far off judgment day and thus she found the prospect of life after death of little comfort. Moreover, she figured that her deceased husband was burning in hell for the all the grief he gave her and so she wasn’t sure if there would be anyone there she knew.
My checkers opponent came out into the yard, and I asked him about his spiritual beliefs and whether they offered him any comfort. “We’re not supposed to think or talk about those things,” he gruffly replied. “We’ve got to finish living this life first.” The TV watcher and the book reader were also outside by then and both nodded that they agreed with the checkers player. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” one of them exclaimed. “We want to have fun while we can.”
When it was time for bingo, each of us was asked to contribute a prize and leave it on the table in front. I contributed a copy of my book, The Afterlife Revealed, hoping that it might give someone hope during his or her final days. The other contributions included a bottle of wine, a Lady Gaga recording, a murder mystery book, a pack of cigarettes, a painting of a vase, a used necktie, a certificate for three free dancing lessons, and a bar of soap.
One by one, the prizes went. The bottle of wine went first, followed by the free dancing lessons. I was the third to yell “Bingo!” and opted for the bar of soap. My book was the last thing remaining on the table. When the last person went up to collect his prize, he looked at the book, curled his nose and walked back to his seat with nothing in hand. I gave him the bar of soap.
As the hospice director saw it, a fake smile on her face, we each made the most of that day. We were entertained by television, books, and games, were each able to win at bingo, and we were able to go outside and smell the roses. Can it be more fun? Can it get any more exciting?
As Professor William James of Harvard, one of the pioneers of psychology, saw it, “the luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with.” In other words, you can’t effectively “live in the present” without considering the future. “Every one knows how when a painful thing has to be undergone in the near future, the vague feeling that it is impending penetrates all our thought with uneasiness and subtly vitiates our mood even when it does not control our attention,” James added. “It keeps us from being at rest, at home in the given present.”
But we remain a nation of Philistines when it comes to dealing with death and talking about the afterlife. “We make rounds and talk about many trivialities or the wonderful weather outside and the sensitive patient will play the game and talk about next spring, even if he is quite aware there will be no next spring for him,” wrote Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who attempted, with very limited success, to revolutionize our approach to dying and death. “These doctors then, will tell us that their patients do not want to know the truth, that they never ask for it, and that they believe all is well. The doctors are, in fact, greatly relieved that they are not confronted and are often quite unaware that they provoked this response in their patients.”
If some enlightened physician or hospice worker attempts to discuss what comes after death with a dying patient, he or she risks saying something that conflicts with Scripture – or rather with modern interpretations given to Scripture – and thereby invites sanctions by the hospice chaplain or the individual’s pastor. Thus, better to say nothing at all.
If I were running a hospice, I would make sure it was filled with plenty of reading material about the evidence for life after death and what life is like on the “other side.” I could make a list of at least 200 books which would go in the hospice library. I would invite speakers from various groups, such as our Academy or the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS) to give talks to the patients as to what to their understanding of death is all about. I’d also make available a number of DVD’s about the Near-Death experience and whatever other uplifting videos might be obtainable. Unless the chaplain had an open mind toward these things, I’d probably fire her or him.
But I’ll never be in charge of a hospice and I see no indication that hospice will change its policy. The only alternative is to “live in the moment” and not think about what might come later. We must, we are told, repress all thoughts of death, escape into as much fiction as possible, whether on television or in a book, enjoy those bingo games and just plain “have fun.”
Michael Tymn is the author of Author of:
Transcending the Titanic (Available Feb. 2012)
The Afterlife Revealed
Running on Third Wind
The Articulate Dead