On death and dying

One of the readers asked me to write such an essay, and I am happy to do my best. I live in an aged-care facility, commonly referred to as ‘God’s waiting room’. I’ve been there now for two and a half years, and am the longest-serving resident at my table. The others are all men. Six guys have died from that table in my time, and one was moved into ‘high care’ because he was disruptive. We don’t talk about death or dying much, only to say, in rather hushed voices, that ‘so and so’ has gone. If it is someone close to us we will line up at the front door when the body is taken away, and I’ll sing ‘Goodbye, goodbye, we’re wishing you a fond goodbye…’ Family members are sometimes surprised at this. I think they don’t realise that in our facility new friendships are forged, often quite quickly. My closest friend here is Max, who is a little older than me and was born in Serbia. He and I have similar medical problems. He has done a number of things since coming to Australia, most notably as a gas fitter. He is a big jovial man, notably good-humoured, with a lovely chuckle. He and I wonder from time to time when we will go.

For the wheels are coming off our carts, Max’s and mine. Just as one thing gets fixed, in a sort of way, along comes another, and we have to endure that. My cancer and its associated chemotherapy make me tired, and I sleep a lot. Max gets at most three hours sleep a night. He envies me. Some of our residents never come to the table, and we don’t know them at all. When they die, we don’t actually know who they were.

I’ll be 84 in a few weeks, and would like to at least get to 88, the age at which my mother died. Dad died a few months before attaining 88. My grandparents got to around that age as well, so it is a good family mark. When we look at some of our residents, who have dementia or acute osteoporosis or some other unpleasant condition we say quietly to one another, ‘I don’t want to finish up like that’. But those with these conditions seem to be hanging on to life. There comes a time, in my case three or four years ago, when you realise that you really are going to die. Before that moment, death is something way ahead. Suddenly it’s not, any more, and you need to think about the consequences for your family. ‘Get your affairs in order’ is the command of the surgeon who sewed the patient up, shaking his head at the impossibility of dealing with whatever it is that will take him away.

What happens when you die? I watched my lovely wife die, and I was holding her hand at the time. She had erratic breathing, and then it just stopped. Like that. She had gone from us. I am not a believing Christian, and I envy the few I know who are. In fact I’m only a Christian in the sense that our culture has a powerful element of Christianity embedded in it, and to have imbibed it from childhood was simply inescapable. I am agnostic about God and Heaven and Hell, not an atheist. To be an atheist would require much more intellectual effort than I have ever been prepared to put in. I was told at Sunday School that I needed to believe in Jesus, but I didn’t know what that meant. What did ‘believe’ mean? I’m not sorry that I had the Sunday School experience. It was part of growing up and learning. But I waited for God to speak to me, perhaps like St Paul. He (she) never did, and I gave it up.

So my expectation is that I will cease to exist other than in the minds of those who knew me. All being well I will not be in pain, and will just fade away. A sudden heart attack would be a preferred end, and even better, falling asleep and never waking up. But I don’t expect some sort of continuation. When you die, that’s it. Do I fear it? No, not really. I have had a wonderful life, and I have no bucket list. I go on writing novels because I enjoy the use of my creative powers in that way. I play the piano occasionally. I’m still able to drive, and I see some of my children regularly, and correspond with them all. I talk to my friends at the dining table. One day something will cause more wheels to fall off. At this moment that something seems far away. But I know very well that it could come tomorrow. My response is a sort of mental shrug.

So I will help my eldest son design my funeral service, about which I do have experience. He has my EPOA (enduring power of attorney), and he is sensible, far-sighted and caring. I hope it’s a good funeral service, and there is no Covid or similar problem when I do go to prevent friends and rellies from attending.

There’s not much I can add. Death is inevitable. It is not pleasant, especially to the friends and rellies of the one dying. I have no objection to euthanasia, though its use requires safeguards. Would I use it myself? Yes, if the pain were unendurable, though these days pain can be managed. I would want to talk about it to my nearest and dearest before I did anything. I might ask my doctor to slightly overdose the morphine, and I would slip quietly away. I should quickly add that I doubt that any of my doctors would agree to this procedure.

Some of our views change over time. I was once opposed to nuclear power. I now think it is a useful adjunct means for those who worry about greenhouse gas emissions, though I’m not one of those. Coal will do for me. In similar fashion I was once opposed to voluntary euthanasia, but now I see it as a means of ending a life that no longer has purpose or any joy. To repeat, it needs safeguards, but they are available. When my turn comes I hope I will face the end bravely and serenely. I see no reason to suppose otherwise.

 

 

Join the discussion 21 Comments

  • John Wilden says:

    Thanks Don for all your excellent essays over the past years.We will all miss your wise words.Best regards. John

  • Len Walker says:

    Hi Don
    I’ve enjoyed reading your regular comments. I haven’t contributed much, but felt moved to respond to this one.

    I’m 80 myself and in good health, but have been at bedside for a number of deaths, ages 40 onwards, including my mother at 94 and mother-in-law at 102. All my mum asked for was for her two sons to be by her side at home when she died, and for her dog to be at the end of the bed. We were lucky enough to fulfil her wishes. Ours will be much the same.

    On a partly related topic, after a long time and many discussions with our daughter (who is a V-P Governance at BHP with 3 bright kids, one at ANU), I’ve only just realised the depth of penetration into the young of the modern “woke” culture (not that it’s 100% bad) but including the AGW climate change myth. My daughter felt that her children were well informed because they read a range of social media and made their own conclusions from this. My fundamental point about going to source factual material and basing an opinion on this seemed to pass through to the keeper – probably because of the current dearth of formal STEM education of the type we received 60 years ago. I now feel at our age it will take at least 10 years for a change to rationality to occur, and at least this time for Roy Spencer’s satellite temperature graphs to show a clear change of trend. All of this sadly means settling down in the fading light waiting till time makes the change, although there is a seed of resistance forming within the climate change group.

    Many years ago I read two of the books by Kubler Ross on Death and Dying, which I must say brought the issue well to the fore early on. The other topic on Life after Life was also quite challenging – not much follow-up recently though on post death experiences.

    Like all your readers, I am grateful for all the effort you have put in over the years sharing your experiences, and wish you well in the years left.

    Cheers
    Len

  • Chris Warren says:

    When my parents went through all this some time ago, I remember how much this work reverberated through my own experience.

    https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/10378/a-very-easy-death-by-simone-de-beauvoir/

    I hope that modern medicine can prolong ones life well into one’s 90’s.

  • Chris Warren says:

    ” I now feel at our age it will take at least 10 years for a change to rationality to occur, and at least this time for Roy Spencer’s satellite temperature graphs to show a clear change of trend.”

    You wait for Godot.

  • John says:

    When people retire from work the big question is “What do I do now?”. I think some people struggle to answer that question and they seem to die of boredom as much as anything else.

    I don’t want to see you going the same way when physical issues, such as the need for sleep, seem to constrain you. Look at the positives. You’re still mentally sharp and you are still a good communicator. With even just these, with your words or wit and wisdom you can make a useful contribution to people’s lives by entertaining them or encouraging them to think. ( I even have a general title for you “Just before I go, …”)

    Thanks for what you’ve written but I hope it won’t be the last. Maybe post some more essays on random occasions, like a “Christmas special”.

    I also see that a “farewell tour” doesn’t have to be a farewell. Just ask John Farnham who first “retired” in 2002, went on to do multiple “farewell” tours and appeared in a bushfire relief concert in Feb 2020 at the age of 70.

  • Walter Starck says:

    Dear Don,

    Just a note of appreciation for all of you valuable ideas and observations. It would be good if you could put the all together into an ebook.

    Best regards,

    Walter

    • Aert Driessen says:

      Interesting thought Walter, but why can’t we do that, or at least a younger reader with computing savvy. I’m happy to contribute my collection going back to June 2016, but that is bound to have gaps it it. Maybe Don can provide his archive on a usb stick for someone else to work on. Just a thought.

  • Peter E says:

    Dear Don, I was delighted to find in my letter box a copy of your latest, ‘Gone to Ground,’ the next chapter in the life of Hugh Flavus. I was highly amused by the description on the back cover of what lies within and I have dipped into the opening pages, a lively account of characters out of this world, so to speak. That you could turn your hand to this form of entertainment as well as to all else that you have done is a sure sign of a life well-rounded and well-lived. Here’s wishing you many more days of clear thought and joyful imagination.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Many thanks Don for sharing your thoughts with us, and for providing us with the opportunity to do likewise as a ‘Comment’. Borrowing from Peter E (above), who I’m privileged to meet on a regular basis, “Here’s wishing you many more days of clear thought and joyful imagination”. I’ll miss your postings, and the comments provided by you “reader family”.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Thank you.

  • Hasbeen says:

    Thank you for your essays Don, they have been a highlight for me, since I discovered the internet. I can only assume from them that you have completed your bucket list & are well satisfied with your life. Let me repeat the desire for you to still post a few from time to time, we need some common sense in todays chaotic world.

    A few years back I thought I had completed my bucket list. I’ve flown off air craft carriers, won races at Bathurst, ridden some great horses after cattle, & in the show jumping arena. My lady of 46 years & I have raised some great kids, & sailed the Pacific Islands in search of the South Pacific of legend.

    Then recently I found a new goal. You see I didn’t get a 21St birthday. I was in the navy, with no family or old friends to share it, & I wasn’t about to admit to my peers that I was still just a kid. Luckily I get a second chance. You see I was born on the 29Th of February. If I make it to the 29Th of February 2024, I will get my real 21St birthday. My last goal now is to have a 21St birthday party, if there are enough of my peers around to come.

    So Don, it is possible to find a new wish for that bucket. Just keep looking, & remember to post a few essays along the way. We still need you.

  • Neville says:

    Don I’ll certainly miss your regular essays, but you deserve more time to yourself and family and particularly if you sleep more these days.
    I hope you are able to reach or exceed your parents age and in the meantime I sincerely hope you have as little pain as possible.
    Thanks again and all the best and you’ve certainly made me think more clearly on a number of occasions.
    BTW here’s a link to the worst UK serial killer from the recent past and I must admit it played on my mind and great acting from James Bolam to portray this horrible creep. Unfortunately Harold Shipman’s elderly patients didn’t have the chance to live out their full lifespan and today they can only guess at the number of people who died because of this callous monster.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Dear Don, it will be very sad for so many reasons if you go ahead of us. My twin brother died recently from the effects of the chemo on his prostate cancer and I am thankful and very lucky not to have a similar problem, so far.

    I hope you do not currently suffer too much from that because it really is painful. My mother died from breast cancer and the very understanding nurse drew me aside and said she would keep giving her increased doses of morphine to make sure she didn’t suffer. It worked very well.

    Any’ow, all the very best and maybe with a bit of luck you will outlive us all and give the thumb to blithnstu and their silly doom preaching lot.

    But even if you or I don’t, someone else will.

  • Aynsley Kellow says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful essay, Don.

    I thank you also for your thoughts over the years. I have not shared every one of them, though I do many, and (like) you do not fear some coming climate apocalypse. This is an area of science I have found less and less convincing with the passing of time, assisted by experiencing the IPCC from the inside as an Expert Reviewer. Nuclear or other technology will do nicely – coal is now producing close to 50% efficiency, so somewhere like a 32-48% reduction in GHGs over the current coal fleet average. And we will eventually see that physics is against a system of renewables with 25-30% capacity factors and enormous variability and unreliability that is insurmountable in an island continent and a huge stretch in networked Europe with heaps of nuclear and Russian gas to fall back on.

    As a fellow agnostic, I always like Boris Pasternak’s observation on how we achieve our ‘immortality’:

    ‘And now listen carefully. You in others – this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life – your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you – the you that enters the future and becomes a part of it.’

    When your time comes, you will live on in our thoughts and will be part of our future.

  • James Dixon says:

    Thank you, Don Aitken, for your service to Australians and others. It will not be forgotten.
    JD

  • MD says:

    Don

    The question of ‘voluntary euthanasia’ is troubling. I pray you will be spared unendurable pain. But how do we know that our life no longer has a purpose or any joy — perhaps it will not be apparent to the dying person, but it may appear to a spouse, a child or a carer? We do not choose to enter life, and perhaps our life is not our private property to dispose of as we will, even if is terrible and bleak?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I agree. Voluntary euthanasia is a troubling concept. And your comment about the desires of family and friends is apposite. I know of several cases where family vetoed the desire of the dying one to be ablate die, and not to be kept ‘alive’ attached to a battery machines. And doctors themselves can override the dying one’s wishes. I guess my position is that the benefits outweigh the risks.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    “perhaps our life is not our private property to dispose of as we will”
    The torturers manifesto.

  • David says:

    Don

    I’ve always appreciated your thoughtful comments on a range of issues.

    As we all confront our inevitable mortality, I empathise with your journey.

    Christianity humbly asserts that God has indeed spoken through the Bible, (aka the word of God).

    It can’t hurt to delve back into the primary sources.

    Might I recommend John’s biography of Jesus. Written by an eyewitness, John’s Gospel is “like a body of water in which a child may wade, and an elephant may swim.” (Attributed to Gregory c. 540-604)

    Two questions to keep in mind as your read John:

    1. Who is Jesus … really?

    2. What does he ask of those who would follow him?

    I trust this might help answer that old Sunday School question: what does it even mean to believe in Jesus?

    All the very best, and thank you once again.

    David

  • Alessandro says:

    Don, whilst I have been an irregular visitor I have been a rabid reader and regular fan of your writings. I’ve had no reason to disagree with your thoughts which I guess makes one of us redundant. Consequently I will miss your guiding thoughts but wish you the very best for your remaining years. You are a legend and leave a legacy to be proud of.

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