On Death

Dying is possibly one of our most human acts. Yet, it’s generally not something that people talk about unless they have to (and sometimes not even when they have to). Death is not usually an event that people take the time to really mull over, to meditate on, to envisage as a moment in their life like any other or indeed to envisage it as one of the most seminal and important moments in their life that can influence their entire the being. German Philosopher Martin Heidegger, unappologetically argues that if we are to be “authentic” human beings then we need to confront our own finitude. We need to live in the knowledge of our “being-towards-death”. He writes that for our “inauthentic” selves, the self that avoids the reality of our own finitude, death is constructed as an actuality rather than a possibility. This construction renders death as an event that is not really our own, that cannot be shared by others and thus conceals death from us as something that happens to us.  I often think about my own death. I realise this sounds morbid (well… not according to Heidegger)  and my more socially aware self wants to recoil from this sentence. Nonetheless, it is true. I have often played over in my mind what my death will look like, sound like; at times even smell like (it’s a nurse thing to think about smells!). 

I think of the moment of my death as an anticlimactic event.   At my last breath my chest rises a feeble centermeter or two, my open mouth makes one final grab at the like a suffocating fish on dry land and my acidotic breath leaves my pale cool physicality for the last time.  The toxins of dying have flooded my vessels and there is not great battle or fan-fair – it  happens, just as it’s meant to. But perhaps what interests me the most about  this scene is that I cannot see anyone beside me during this event. In fact, I wonder if  I actually want anyone to be with me when I die. I have often thought about this and on numerous occassions  have decided that I do not want company.  This is not based in the desire to spare other people from the event or save some last thread of self-digity by not being exposed to others in such a vulnerable time.  Rather, if indeed dying is one of our most intimately human acts, then arguably it is something we can only do by ourselves, a communion (no religous pun intended) with ourself. With others present (milling, watching, holding, talking, touching) the act of dying is morphed almost into a goup event – something which at its heart it connot be. But even as this there is another uncomfortable part of me that whispers “maybe you’re wrong”. Maybe your delluding yourself…. 

The notion of dying as a communion with oneself is a thought that sits in stark contrast to my years of experience nursing people who are dying. Many fear the thought of dying alone.  For some family members the thought of their loved one dying alone is worse than the death itself.  So what do we fear the most death or being alone in death? I do ponder whether the thought of being alone with our own self  at death – the very time which we have deluded ourselves will actually occur  – frightens us to our core? Moreover, perhaps for those family members/friends that sit in vigil, the process of sitting alongside another while they are dying reinforces a way of thinking about death as an actuality that happens to another rather than to oneself.