Embracing Death, Discovering Life: Bearing Witness to the End of Days

By Koepke, Donald | Aging Today, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview
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Embracing Death, Discovering Life: Bearing Witness to the End of Days

Koepke, Donald, Aging Today

No one understands the truth of Ben Franklin's witticism about death and taxes better than older adults. Beginning somewhere between ages 45 and 55, the developmental task begins to shift from gratification outside the self to a more internally driven focus and integrity, according to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson.

Many elders don't fear death, speaking of it as a solution to the frustrations and suffering of old age. But many more are afraid of dying, perhaps because death is the ultimate unknown, an encounter with non-being, the definitive experience of limitation, the final recognition of a lack of control over one's life.

Martin Heidegger called death "the impossibility of future possibilities," the end of dreams. It is no wonder that throughout life people tend to deny and run from what is inevitable.

Advice for Exploring Death

But the reality of one's own death cannot be so easily ignored when experiencing increasing fragility and frequent loss of peers. How can healthcare professionals assist elders to talk about and engage the very topic which many (professionals included) have disregarded most of their lives?

First, be aware of your personal struggles with your own death. If, as a healthcare professional, you aren't comfortable exploring the reality of death amidst life, a client will not be comfortable either. Be upfront with your concerns, fears and unanswered questions about death as they arise. Don't be afraid to approach the client from a place of "unknowing," where you are not the answer-giver, but another journeyer seeking answers, even counsel, from those whose proximity to death might evoke deeper insight into your own dying.

Second, listen. Share the client's wondering and questioning. Don't assume your understanding of death is right for everyone. Seek clarification rather than answers as together you explore the mysteries of death and life. Remember, you can never fix someone's problem; people must discover their own answers. Your role (if permitted) is that of a witness.

The Ultímate Questions

Third, remember that the ultimate question is not "why am I dying?" but rather, "what is my dying teaching me?"

Many of us have had this experience: your life is full and rich, without much time for outside intrusions, until someone close dies. Suddenly, there is time to travel, to talk about the deceased and to listen to others. Suddenly, priorities change.

We find ourselves asking ultimate questions regarding life: has my life been meaningful; have I been loving the right people and things; has my life been worth the living; what can I do in the time to come to make my life more connected, full and complete? A simple assessment tool might help clients to explore their spiritual strengths and needs. One I have often used is the straightforward FICA Spiritual History Tool (www.

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