What can an atheist say to a friend who is grieving the death of a loved one? Believers have a standard repertoire: “He’s with God now.” “I’ll pray for you.” “She’s in heaven now.”
Greta Christina recently raised this same issue. She and her readers compiled a list of approaches for people who don’t believe in God. Her extensive list includes the following:
1. “I’m so sorry.”
2. “I remember when… /My life is so much better because of…”
3. “What can I do to help?”
An article at MSNBC caught my eye. The title: “Doctors hastened dying kids’ death, say parents.” My initial reaction was that the doctors had done something bad. The article turned out to be more nuanced than the headline, but the opening paragraph suggested that some doctors were acting nefariously:
It’s a situation too agonizing to contemplate — a child dying and in pain. Now a small but provocative study suggests that doctors may be giving fatal morphine doses to a few children dying of cancer, to end their suffering at their parents’ request.
But then I thought, what if the opposite were true? And then what if the opposite headline read like this:
A provocative study suggests that some doctors are refusing to give enough pain-relieving morphine to children dying of cancer, thereby exacerbating and extending their horrific suffering.
My point is not just to be provocative. Before going further, I should disclose that I am the parent of two young (healthy) children, so this horrid situation is something that I find extremely uncomfortable to even contemplate. Nonetheless, what would I do if I had a a child who was writhing in pain, and who had only weeks or months before he would die? Would it really a bad thing to give that child more pain medication in order to lessen his pain, knowing that it would shorten his already terribly shortened life expectancy?
I am amazed at how Americans make simplistic cartoons out of so many moral dilemmas. We call it “mercy killing,” even when the aim is to reduce suffering. I would never criticize a parent for wanting to relieve a child’s suffering by giving pain medication when that child is dying of cancer. Maybe we need a new language to meaningfully discuss this situation. How about calling it “relieving the suffering of an innocent child.” Why call it “killing” at all? Why even call it euthanasia (literally, “good death”)?
When a child is being non-stop crushed with pain, what kind of parent enhances the pain by withholding drugs in order to attempt to display an incredibly shallow version of moral superiority to others in the community? Shouldn’t the whole focus be what’s best for the child? Is it better for the child to be in excruciating pain, every hour of the day, or to be given relief from the pain, even though it shortens his life? I know that many people disagree with me–they think that any wretched existence is superior to the end of one’s earthly existence. Ironically, most of those people believe in an afterlife. I don’t get it.
When we’re dealing with the family pet, everyone knows the answer. We call it being “humane” to the pet when we choose to painlessly put the pet out of its misery. But somehow, when we are being “humane” to humans, we intensify and extend their suffering. What’s driving this upside-down logic? Are the critics merely having sport with doctors, most of whom are working extremely hard to give the families what they need and want?
This issue is not limited to dying children, of course. Hence the moral second-guessing when sick elderly adults choose to die in far off places like Switzerland.
There are many other ways to needlessly kill healthy children and to make them suffer and to deprive them of healthy minds, but we don’t use the word “kill” when describing legislation that does this. You know . . . legislation that cuts medical care, closes subsidized daycare, fails to fund nutrition education centers, or allows bad schools to continue to operate. Perhaps we should use the word “kill” in those situations, since that word often provokes people to take action.
But I also think that we need to jettison the “kill” language for those gut-wrenching situations where children are dying and parents are struggling to figure out what to do. We should start over when an entirely new language devoid of the word “kill,” because it is the disease that is killing such children, and the parents are trying to deal with the disease. Only with a new language with a more thoughtful version of causation is worth of such situations.
What can be done about your Facebook friends who die? According to an article by Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon.com, Facebook is coming up with some solutions centered on “memorial pages.” Williams also gives this advice:
Be careful what profile pic you post or what your friends write on your wall — it might be your last enduring image.
Have you ever wondered why so many Americans wear clothing when it’s warm outside? Are they really covering up for sexual propriety—because of shame? Or could it be that they are wearing clothes to cover up their animal-ness– their mortality? I’m intrigued by this issue, as you can tell from my previous writings, including my posts about “terror management theory,” and nipples.
This issue came to mind again recently when I found a website that allows you to completely undress people. The site has nothing to do with sex, I can assure you, but it has a powerful set of images that raise interesting questions about human nakedness. To get the full experience, go to the website and select an image of a fully clothed person. These are absolutely ordinary looking people, as you will see. Then click on the images of any of these men or women and watch their clothes disappear.
If you are like me, when their clothing disappears, this will not cause you to any think sexual thoughts. If you are like me, you will find yourself thinking that these people looked more “attractive” with their clothes on. For me, the effect is dramatic and immediate, and it reminded me of a comment by Sigmund Freud (I wasn’t able to dig out the quote), something to the effect that we are constantly and intensely attracted to the idea of sex (duh!), but that sex organs themselves often look rather strange to our eyes–sex organs are not necessarily sexy. I think the same thing can be said for our entire bodies. Nakedness isn’t the same thing as sexuality or else nudist colonies would tend to be orgies (which, from what I’ve read, they are not). Rather, sexual feelings are triggered by the way we use our bodies. We do many things that are sexual, and most of these things take some effort. Simply being naked is not an effective way to be sexy.
In America, people constantly confound nudity with sexuality. I admit that the media presents us with many ravishing image of sexy naked people, but the sexiness of such images is not due to the mere nakedness. There’s always a lot more going on than mere nakedness. Consider also, that when people actually mate, they often bring the lights down low, further hiding their bodies.
Then why do Westerners cover up with clothing to be “proper”? I suspect that anxiety about death (not so much anxiety about sex) contributes to our widespread practice of hiding those naturally furry parts of our bodies—those parts associated with critically “animal” functions relating to reproduction and excretion of body wastes.
[More . . .]
The raging health care debate “debate” is almost entirely devoid of facts, an issue on which I’ve previously posted. Instead of discussing fact, then, we tend hurl vague accusations, like calling the reformers “communists” (and you’ve GOT to see this).
I “blame” Obama for this lack of specificity, but I realize that the vicious opposition mounted by huge self-interested insurance companies and health care providers might require that he not play all of his cards at this point.
But isn’t it odd that our politicians aren’t at least clarifying the term “health care coverage” when they refer to national health care coverage? Defining this term would make a huge difference to the public reaction to any national plan. Here are two possibilities (though there are others):
A) The national plan will offer gold-plated coverage much like the expensive United Health Care coverage I buy for my family through my employer. For the record, the pre-tax cost of this coverage is about $20,000 per year for my family. Is the Obama proposal to provide every citizen with this kind of coverage? If so, I can see why there is massive resentment to the proposal. Many working people can barely afford health insurance coverage at all, and the coverage many people do purchase is not nearly as comprehensive as the expensive coverage I purchase. Of course people who can can only afford to buy their own rudimentary policies will resent that the government might buy gold-plated policies for everyone else, including many highly irresponsible people.
B) The national plan will offer a rudimentary coverage only. It will cover x-rays and casts for broken arms, but not heart transplants and expensive drugs that only marginally increase one’s chances of surviving an illness. It wouldn’t keep people suffering from terminal illness on life support when there is no reasonable chance that they would ever leave the hospital. It would cover only a small subset of the treatments covered by gold-plated policies. It might be akin to the Oregon Plan.
I believe that there would be massive resistance to the national coverage described in A) but far less resistance to the coverage described in B).
At least Oregon’s legislators had the cajunas to specifically state what was covered under their plan and what was not (Oregon’s prioritized list is available for all to see). Oregon had the fiscal responsibility to make certain that they could afford the level of health care to which they were committing. Oregon dealt head-on with the accusation that they were “rationing” health care; absolutely they were, just like private plans ration health care only to those who pay those high premiums. Both responsible and irresponsible health care plans “ration” health care. Therefore, it is not a criticism of any health care plan that it “rations” health care. Here are the guiding principles to the Oregon Plan:
In 1987, the Oregon Legislature realized that it had no method for allocating resources for health care that was both effective and accountable. Over the next two years, policy objectives were developed to guide the drafting of legislation to address this problem. These policy objectives included:
• Acknowledgment that the goal is health rather than health services or health insurance
• Commitment to a public process with structured public input
• Commitment to meet budget constraints by reducing benefits rather than cutting people
from coverage or reducing payments to levels below the cost of care
• Commitment to use available resources to fund clinically effective treatments of
conditions important to Oregonians
• Development of explicit health service priorities to guide resource allocation decisions.
Our national conversation regarding health care is so dysfunction on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ll make only one more point in this post, however. Opponents of current proposals often make accusations that there will be “death panels,” indicating that some sick people will be allowed to die. As a nation, we need to grow up and deal with the fact that this happens every day in every hospital in the country: we shouldn’t be allocating huge amounts of money to maintain pulses in people who have become living corpses. There are some families who “can’t let go” no matter what (e.g., Terry Schiavo), and our national plan needs to have specific guidelines for these situations. In fact, every private insurance plan should have guidelines for determining when further treatment is likely to be futile and a provision for ending coverage at that point. The alternative is to make policies so horrifically expensive that many people can’t afford policies that cover tratments likely to make an immediate positive impact on their lives.
Only when we put these issues clearly on the table can we begin to have a real conversation.
All my life I’ve been fascinated with the way most people refuse to deal with death. Many people simply can’t stand to talk plainly about death. When Uncle Fred dies, they can’t bear to say “Uncle Fred died.” Rather, it’s something like Uncle Fred “passed away” Or “Uncle Fred went to heaven,” even though no one is sure whether there is a heaven—or if there really were a heaven, no one knows how one would really know whether Uncle Fred really earned his way in. Regardless, whenever people die, most people talk as though they are sure the loved one is still alive and that they are absolutely certain that he or she didn’t go to hell.
Further, when people speak of the death of loved ones, they usually speak in a strange voice and with strange facial expressions. It’s difficult to say why people have such a difficult time talking plainly about death, but they do. I don’t claim to have the entire answer, but I am intrigued by the insights of Terror Management Theory.
People also talk this strange way when their pets die. A few months ago, an acquaintance told me that his 10 and 12 year old sons had been crying constantly, for several weeks, that their dog “passed away and went to dog heaven.” Good grief! Then again, we are also living at a time when Americans will go so far as to pay thousands of dollars for chemotherapy for their 15-year old dogs. Most of us just can’t let go.
As a teenager, I often noticed this discomfort with death and I wondered why so many people can’t shoot straight on such an important topic. Why can’t people plainly admit that within 150 years every person currently living on earth will be dead, and that this includes your parents, your children, everyone one of your friends and even those know-it-all preachers who so often assure you that you continue to live after you die?
This fascinating topic of death came up vividly last week. A co-worker was telling me about a strange request being made by her 70-year old mother. Her mother has repeatedly raised the topic of her own (eventual) death and she has requested that when she dies, she wants her children to embalm her and place her body into a glass coffee table, lying on her back, with her eyes open. She wants to remain part of the family forever, as best she is able. My co-worker and her family were somewhat amused by this request until it became clear that her mother wasn’t kidding. Her mother really wants her dead body to remain in the living room of one of her adult children, where it will be plainly visible to her children and grandchildren (and presumably great-grandchildren, etc). Here mother claims to be figuring out how to make this glass coffee table entombment a reality.
Hearing this story reminded me of a concept I co-developed with a buddy named Mike Harty back in high school (in 1974). Mike and I often discussed death back in high school. Many of our classmates found the topic to be disturbing, but it energized and entertained us. One day, we wondered what kind of potential market might exist for post-death “living” arrangements for families whose loved ones were now corpses. We called our concept “Holland House,” (I believe that we borrowed the named from this real life opulent estate). Our company slogan would be: “We think your loved ones should not be deprived of their earthly pleasures.” And also this one: Holland House: Open to all dead people from 7 to 70.” Mike even drew a photo of Holland House, which would offer wealthy families the finest in post-death community living:[caption id="attachment_8651" align="aligncenter" width="445" caption="Art by Mike Harty"][/caption]
Holland House would be a large lavish resort for dead people, an alternative for families not willing to plop their dead loved ones into graves. Here’s how we planned to market Holland House.
Important announcement for bereaved families. Consider this alternative to burial or cremation. Simply send your loved ones to Holland House and we will carry on where the nursing home left off. Our attendants will start the day by taking your loved one’s corpse out of bed, dressing it and wheeling it to the breakfast table, where it would sit (admittedly stiffly and silently) in front of fresh food prepared by highly trained chefs. After breakfast, we will wheel your loved one to a wide variety of activities, including various classes and recreational activities.
There would be visiting hours, where the families could come to talk to their dead loved ones—Holland House staff would wheel the corpse into a brightly lit visiting area, with tea and cookies, where the family could present an update about what was going on with the living members of the family. Our professional staff would update the family as to their loved ones’ activities at Holland House. For instance, we might advise: “Yesterday we had a photography class and horseback riding. Tomorrow, we will have dancing classes–two attendants will assist each corpse–and shuffleboard.”[caption id="attachment_8653" align="alignright" width="282" caption="Art by Mike Harty"][/caption]
Holland House would have a photographer on staff to keep the family photo album updated with photos of everyone in the family, alive or otherwise.
[I'm not recounting these ideas from pure memory. Mike and I wrote up an outline of the services to be offered by Holland House]
Mike and I planned that Holland House would have private rooms for each of the guests, with a color TV in each room. We’d have an extensive library and a medical center (where we’d we well stocked in deodorant). We offer night classes too, including a favorite: “How to get the most out of life.”). There would be a dating service, where we’d match residents based on their accomplishments while they were alive. We’d have a high end clothes store, so that our residents were always wearing up-to-date fashions. Our foods would be naturally grown organic foods fertilized by former residents. Oh, and we’d be careful at Holland House that we’d never refer to our residents as “dead.”
Perhaps you’re wondering how long would a corpse stay at Holland House? The answer is simple: as long as the family couldn’t bear to dispose of the corpse in some other way or until the family money ran out, whatever came earlier.
I am offering this idea for free to anyone who wants to offer Holland House services to people with far too much money. Then again, perhaps post-death living might get so popular someday that Medicare would pick up the tab, which could lead to multiple generation families residing on entire wings of Holland House . . .
Mike and I created all of this for our amusement many years ago, but this concept was all triggered by the fact that so many people can’t acknowledge that dead people were really and truly dead.
I love to collect quotes. Such a high ratio of thought-provocation per word! I’d even bet that there is a the seed for a novel in most well-honed quotes. I collect these from many sources, though more than a few of the following were presented to me by The Quotations Page, which I use as my homepage. Some of these quotes have made the rounds (the oldies-but-goodies), though I’d bet that you’ll find more than a few that you’ve never seen before. Enjoy.
In mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.
Johann von Neumann (1903 – 1957)
Doing a thing well is often a waste of time.
It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.
Tom Stoppard (1937 – ), Jumpers (1972) act 1
The great thing about being the only species that makes a distinction between right and wrong is that we can make up the rules for ourselves as we go along.
Douglas Adams , Last Chance to See
“It is not acceptable to have a religion where the alternative to faith is punishment — that’s how you train dogs, not develop people.”
When ideas fail, words come in very handy.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.
A physicist is an atom’s way of knowing about atoms.
George Wald (1906 – )
Furious activity is no substitute for understanding.
H. H. Williams
I am experiencing a rather weird feeling – three cultural icons whose flames burned brightest during my own youth have all been extinguished in the same week. First Ed McMahon, who, for years has been but a caricature of himself, died, essentially of old age, at 86. Not a big surprise, except I wonder how someone who was so vibrant when I was a teen managed to get that old?! A friend pointed out that deaths like his make her feel old, and I get that. But so do the deaths of Farrah and Jacko today – at least for me. Because I can still remember believing that only old people lose contemporaries in any large number – and perhaps because we lost a mom at my oldest daughter’s school to ovarian cancer this month – I’m feeling a bit too close to death’s doorway.
I was never a big fan of Farrah, but I know several men who, as boys, would glaze over just staring at her poster on their bedroom walls. She and her fellow Angels were early purveyors of girl-power – except it was the toxic kind, a power that came primarily from great bodies, beautiful faces and big hair. Oh, and yeah, they could kick butt against the bad guys, of course. Theirs was a cultural impact similar to Barbie’s – a completely unrealistic picture of femininity to strive for, girls! But still, they were women in formerly man-held roles, and they were part of my girlhood, for better or worse. Farrah, of course, was always the top angel. Not a role model, although back then some tried to paint her as such; just an icon, replete with faults that became more apparent as she got older and the media more intrusive. Like her or not, I am saddened by the long suffering she had to endure up to her end.
As for Michael Jackson, I simply don’t know how to feel.
Reading through my back issues of the Economist, I came across this article from March. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association religious people seem curiously unwilling and unready to die.
According to the study, by Andrea Phelps and her colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, religious people seem to use their faith simply to cope with the pain and degradation involved in treatment, and that they are more willing to experiment with more aggressive treatments, even though such treatment rarely makes much difference to the outcome or their life expectancy.
Dr Phelps and her team followed the last months of 345 cancer patients. The participants were not asked directly how religious they were but, rather, about how they used any religious belief they had to cope with difficult situations by, for example, “seeking God’s love and care”. The score from this questionnaire was compared with their requests for such things as the use of mechanical ventilation to keep them alive and resuscitation to bring them back from the dead.
According to the study, three times as many ‘religious’ people requested aggressive life extension measures (mechanical ventilation and resuscitation) versus the least religious.
I would expect that the religious would be happy to eventually ‘meet their maker’ – but I suppose this is yet another aspect of the cognitive dissonance we find among religion and it’s adherents.