The Noble Death
Why are we supposed to die nobly? Why is “He went with such dignity,” considered not only the final, but the ultimate accolade of honor that can be bestowed upon a human being’s life?
The grieving process has long been divided into phases, beginning with denial and ending with acceptance. Any psych 101 student can tell you that when we lose a loved one, we often progress through these phases, including such plebian manifestations of loss as anger. We go through them, the experts tell us, at varying rates; while one phase might last hours, another might last years. When faced with our own immortality rather than that of a loved one, we are expected to go through the same process, culminating in a gentle, peaceful, unselfish death invariably and continually depicted by Hollywood in one after another blockbuster tearjerker guaranteed to have “em sobbing in the aisles. The husband’s last thoughts are for his wife and how best to provide for her. The mother’s final words, delivered with shimmering eyes, are tender advice to her uncomprehending child. The virtuous sister confesses her lifelong jealousy of her sibling and begs forgiveness for any and all ignominious thoughts she might have had in her 24-year life, tragically cut short by a horrible twist of fate that put her in the path of a drunk driver.
Is it merely a theatrical ploy to ensure wraparound ticket-holder lines on opening night, or is there, perhaps, a more spiritual motive in our admiration of the perfect death? Are we, perhaps, hoping to collect Brownie points to cash in, in the Hereafter? Does neatness count at the Pearly Gates?
Fortunately, or unfortunately, (and I defy anyone to definitively designate which,) it just doesn’t always happen that way in real life. The Unknown, to all but the most devout believers, is an unidentified void that, at least on some level, is to be feared. And fear can do strange things to people. Fear for the life of one’s child can bestow upon a 112-lb mother the strength to single-handedly lift an automobile under which her child is trapped. The complex, and as yet poorly understood interaction of chemicals secreted in the body in response to emotions can impact upon one’s physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual state enormously. Reactions to fear can seem paradoxical, but somewhere in all the confusion, there is a basic survival instinct at work. A rabbit that freezes when suddenly caught in a car’s headlights might appear to be foolishly inviting sure death, but that same frozen rabbit, caught in a hawk’s shadow, might never have been detected, and could conceivably go on to eat a lot more carrots, long after the tired hawk gives up the search. Mother nature, in her infinite wisdom, has provided us with the instinct to survive, and nowhere in nature has an animal knowingly confronted death without an overabundance of adrenaline coursing through it’s bloodstream.
Of course, you say, an animal cannot reason. Of course, you might add, an animal does not have the advantage of faith, or the wisdom of acceptance, to ease it’s passage from life to death. Our frozen rabbit friend is bound by the humblest of all endowments; pure instinct. But reason and cognizance carry a high price: awareness of our own mortality. We illustrious humans are alone in that knowledge.
But evolution did not rid us of our instinct to survive when it so generously endowed us with the knowledge that death is inevitable. Perhaps, as one approaches the later years of life, acceptance can grow within us, as the wisdom of age and the understanding of the cycles of life renewing itself, and our place in the broader scheme of things, begin to outweigh the fear. And perhaps we can simply get tired, and like the child who has taken one too many chocolates from the open box, our hunger for life can be sated.
It is when death comes to the cognizant person who is neither old nor tired, in whom the instinct to survive is alive and well, who had plans and dreams yet untried, who has hopes, plans and desires still burning inside, that the pain of the pending loss and the injustice of it all so often seems to overcome all other thoughts, leaving just one burning question cried out over and over in the dark of the lonely night, “Why me? Why me?”
And as if to add insult to injury, this state of impending loss is so often accompanied by devastating physical suffering; sometimes for a prolonged period of time, and often progressive.
How, and even more to the point, why, should we expect any one in this situation to “go with dignity?” We would not consider the lifelong child abuser who died calmly and gracefully a better person because of it; nor should we consider the paragon of virtue who went sobbing and terrified any less exemplary. As most of us life our loves somewhere in between those extremes, could we, and should we not be remembered most of the wonderful, irresponsible, brilliant, foolish, funny, admirable and imperfect things we did in our lives, rather than the way we reacted to our own demise?
My husband died at age 43 after a long, painful and protracted illness. He did not take Psychology 101, and he must not have read the book, because he got stuck in the anger phase of the grieving process, and stayed there to the bitter end. For whatever reason, his anger was directed towards me, and to no one else. It was a difficult time for me, but not nearly as difficult as it was for him. I will not remember him for those last terrified and angry moments of his life. Instead, I choose to remember him for the years of love, happiness, sharing, sadness, frustrating and fulfillment that he brought to my life.
I do not think I will die with dignity. I hope I will die in my sleep, but I also hope I’ll hit the Big Six numbers and become an instant millionaire; neither of which hope have I much reason to expect. But I do hope that however I go, I will be remembered for how I lived my life, not how I lost it.
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