Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Final Exit: You Mean it Can Happen to Me?

“Why are you taking this course?” is the standard question asked the first day of most classes and my college extension class was no different. What was different was the class itself; I had no idea what I was getting in to. The title of the class, Talking About Death As If It Might Happen To Us was one I signed up for because it fell on a day I was free and I’ve always been interested in the topic of death. 

           I answered that introductory question by saying that my life’s journey had included death from an early age: my parents died when I was young and going to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave and hearing stories about her post-mortem made me very aware that death was a part of life. I became fascinated with cemeteries and memorials and the way that people expressed their grief over the loss of loved ones. But, I discovered that this 8-week course was so far removed, yet so applicable, to my own experience with death, and the entire experience scared the hell out of me.

It was a practical course on preparing for our own death experience, bringing the topic of our mortality into the light, making us, and hopefully our loved ones, prepare emotionally, intellectually, and legally. Yes, legally. Our aging process, if we are so fortunate to age, comes with all sorts of complications and we might just find ourselves in a position where we can’t take care of ourselves or tell those in charge of our care what our wishes are. My past experience with death was in the abstract; it didn’t apply to me personally. This class was a reality check and I found myself running as fast as I could in the opposite direction rather than face the fact that preparing for my own demise was an urgent necessity.

We read books: Death, Dying and Dessert by Susan Abel Lieberman, Being Mortal, the bestseller by Atul Gawande, several pertinent articles and had access to videos and handouts. As a former college professor I expected my students to do their homework. When I was a college student I was exceptional in ensuring my homework was done on time. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to do all the assignments, especially the ones requiring me to have the “other talk;” conversations with another (I chose my lifelong best friend) about my wishes, or the one where I filled out my Advance Directive. 

Of course I told myself it was because I was too busy, but the underlying truth is that I consider myself too busy to die.

I shared these feelings on our last day of class and thankfully the teacher acknowledged me by saying she appreciated my candor. I just loved being in that class, in spite of the topic; I felt embraced by my classmates, some members who are at that precipice looking at their 9th decade. I admire their courage, but most importantly their generosity as they give themselves and their loved ones the gift, yes the gift, of being wholly prepared for the inevitable. I only hope that I can access the same courageous spirit and do likewise.

I am still in possession of my class notes, books, handouts, and links. I have my Advanced Directive worksheet and document to fill out. Thankfully I have my husband, best friend, and children at close hand to share my long-term care and final days wishes with. I am committed to completing all class assignments after the fact, and make a promise to myself that sooner rather than later, to visit this topic often so I can become comfortable with it. My life, and my death, depends upon it.