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'Today might be my last day'

Experts say American society is finding it easier to accept death

Experts say American society is finding it easier to accept death

April 22, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Evelyn Michael Hicks easily accepts that death might come in the morning.

"I've found peace with God, and I'm ready whenever he's ready to take me," said Hicks, a 93-year-old hospice patient who suffers from heart disease.

According to those who witness death on a regular basis, more people who face death are thinking like Hicks. American society is finding it easier to accept death.

"In the last 20 to 15 years, death has come out of the closet," said Dr. Dana Cable, psychology and thanatology professor at Hood College in Frederick, Md.

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Cable is head of Hood's graduate program in thanatology - the scientific study of death and the social practices surrounding it - and is the author of "Death and Dying: The Universal Experiences."

Part of the change is due to the influence of a generation of baby boomers more open to discussing death and dying than prior generations, according to researchers at the National Funeral Directors Association.

Sept. 11, 2001, also has influenced how the broader American society perceives death.

"We had gotten to a point where we viewed death as a negative thing because we were living longer," Cable said. "As long as people felt they had control over their deaths, because they didn't speed, because they didn't smoke, or because they eat healthy, that kept (death) in the closet.

"But when we saw 9/11, it said no matter what we do, death comes. So suddenly, death was our constant companion."

Denial

Despite changing social views on death, denial is often the most common reaction for those facing imminent death, local hospice workers said.

The reason, according to Dawn Johns, community relations director for Hospice of Washington County, is that death forces people to come to terms with the fact that they might not have accomplished all that they wished and that they might have taken many aspects of their lives for granted.

"They realize what they truly value in life and want to start going after those goals," Johns said. "They say things like, 'I don't have a strong relationship with my daughter. I want to mend that before I die.'"

Loyal Vanderveer, chaplain at hospice, said part of his job is to help those facing imminent death find inner peace.

"They've been given a certain time to live and they might think, 'It's time for me to get my life together.'" Vanderveer said. "They have a lot of questions about faith and forgiveness."

One route to acceptance, hospice workers said, is following an old adage: living each day as though it were your last day.

"But as a rule of thumb, we don't operate that way," said Kathy Boyd-Mansfield, director of bereavement services at Hospice of Washington County. "We get caught up in the day-to-day things, and we forget about the things we really value."

'Today might be my last day'

Hicks lives every day as though it were her last because three years ago she was told by doctors that she had six months or less to live.

"Today might be my last day," Hicks said during an interview at her Hagerstown home.

"I want to die," Hicks said. "I'm in pain. I'm ready for the Lord to take me."

She has been given her last rights three times during the last three years. She rarely leaves her house and is cared for by her 66-year-old daughter, Linda Norrington, and hospice staff.

"She's such a strong woman, so independent," said Norrington, who now lives in the same building as her mother in order to make it easier to care for her.

"It hurts for me to see her so uncomfortable and know that there's nothing I can do, there's nothing anyone else can do," said Norrington, who has her mother's pecan-brown skin and bluish-gray eyes.

"She has a lot of willpower," Norrington said. "I wish I could be just as strong."

Hicks takes nine medications on a given day, and that's not including the medication she takes for pain and breathing, said Ellen Hudson, her hospice nurse.

Even though Hicks can no longer do things she used to enjoy - needlework, gardening and volunteering - Hicks said she is at peace with dying.

She said she finds joy and a sense of accomplishment through doing the little things, such as when she has enough energy to make herself breakfast in the morning.

"Every day I think of what I can try to do because I have so much time on my hands," Hicks said.

'Enjoy the time you have left'

Gerald Fear, 53, can relate to Hicks' condition if not her perspective on death.

Debilitating heart and lung disease placed Fear in hospice care during the fall of 2006. In order to be placed in hospice, it must be determined that the patient likely has six months or less to live.

Fear, married with five children, is bedridden and hasn't left his Hagerstown home since January. He earned his living driving trucks before illness forced him to retire last year.

He now takes 15 different medications a day and relies on others to bathe and help him dress, said his wife, Cathy, 41.

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