“I think my late 70’s would be a good time to die,” she said and then reasoned, “In your 70’s your health is usually still good, and your mind as well. By 80 your quality of life usually drops off, if it hasn’t already. I don’t want to be old and decrepit. Worst of all, I don’t want to be dependent on others or, heaven forbid, a burden to my children.”
Many of us will face difficult decisions as we age. From the viewpoint of conventional consciousness, an old age marked by disability of mind or body may seem to many not worth living. What is the point of enduring such suffering, dependency on others, and loss of life quality? Our rational, practical-oriented mind asks, “What is the purpose of such a life?”
We have compassion for people in this state. We feel for their caregivers. We pray that we don’t live that long or become that disabled. We contemplate euthanizing ourselves if we ever get “that bad.”
We may come to the conclusion that we know more than our body. We hypothesize that sometimes the body just doesn’t know when to turn itself off. We may blame technology for allowing people to live longer than what we feel is humane. We may all be in a position at some time regarding the curtailment of life support and the extraordinary means of keeping someone—perhaps ourselves—alive.
Such thoughts and questions are understandable and worthy of contemplation. But before we take them to the bank, I think we owe it to ourselves—and those under our care—to consider something else. It will not erase the validity and relevance of the foregoing, but it may add breadth and balance to the picture.
In his book, The Anatomy of the Psyche, Jungian psychologist Edward F. Edinger shares this report from a woman regarding the death of her grandfather:
Before my grandfather died, he was in a nursing home for eight or ten years, so senile that he seemed to recognize no one. Everyone kept asking, ‘Why doesn’t he die?’ Everyone kept saying how much better it would have been if he could have died when his active life was over; always he had found meaning only in work and activity.
The night before his death, one of his daughters (my aunt) dreamed that she saw hanging before her a very large and very beautiful intricately and colorfully woven Oriental carpet. At the top rim she saw the final thread being woven into place. She understood that this carpet was her father’s soul-work, which he had been weaving silently for the past eight or ten years, and now that it was finished, he was free to go. [p.103]
Her grandfather died the next day. To be fair, we don’t know what is going on in the mind, heart and soul of a dementia patient before they die. We know what we see—confusion, sadness, anger, fear, pain, bewilderment, or maybe just a vacant stare.
I think we need to be careful about drawing the conclusion that the universe or nature has made a mistake, that the body’s efforts to extend its life is misguided, or that we know more about the mystery of life—or any one life—than we actually do. Are we so certain about what the psyche intends or really seeks for an individual—or his/her caregivers—in the last years, months, days or minutes of their life, even if that life seems to be utterly purposeless and without quality to us.
I do not argue that lives should be extended without regard for financial and caregiving considerations, the individual’s stated preferences, their level of pain, etc. But neither should we ignore the reality of our own ignorance regarding the mysterious wisdom and goals of life’s undying urge to life.
Copyright © Andy Drymalski, Ed.D.
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