December 18, 2013

"World Death Rate Holds Steady at 100 Percent"

In the past weeks, I've attended two memorial services for dear departed friends and joined the rest of the world in paying tribute to Nelson Mandela. And so I've wondered, how DO we deal with death and dying?

Let's consider these deaths:
  • Nelson Mandela: To be sure, he was a heroic, inspiring world leader. Still, the death of a seriously ill 95-year-old doesn't strike me as tragic, or even sad.
  • Vola Lawson: I knew and loved Vola -- former Alexandria city manager -- since 1956. She died of sudden cardiac arrest last Tuesday. I posted a remembrance on Friday and attended Vola's funeral on Monday. She was 79 and enjoyed a rich, full life. I cried when I heard the news of her death, and tears still well up when I think how much I'll miss her friendship. But I sense that friends who knew about our close friendship are surprised I'm not more grief-stricken.
I'm more matter-of-fact about death than most. At first, I even thought about titling today's post "Death Happens." Then I came across the wry title above that The Onion used for a news feature that began this way:
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND—World Health Organization officials expressed disappointment Monday at the group's finding that, despite the enormous efforts of doctors, rescue workers and other medical professionals worldwide, the global death rate remains constant at 100 percent. 

Death rates since 1992 
Death, a metabolic affliction causing total shutdown of all life functions, has long been considered humanity's number one health concern. Responsible for 100 percent of all recorded fatalities worldwide, the condition has no cure.
I'd rather joke about death than refuse to think about it. That's just me; others feel differently. I was talking with a friend today who said she was "scared to death about dying." I know others who don't brood about their own deaths, but can't bear to think about losing an aging parent.

Thoughts About My Own Demise
I'll be 85 next May. The CDC's life expectancy tables estimate the life remaining for a white male my age at just under six years. I played around with several interactive calculators that take into account lifestyle factors that affect longevity. One from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School had me living to age 92. The "Longevity Game" from Northwestern Mutual Life predicted I'd make it to 95.

None of these calculators asked about my Parkinson's disease or my prostate cancer. These reckonings are based on averages, and I'm not average. I may have another five or six years, and I'm comfortable with that.

I don't get depressed about the prospect of departing within the next five to ten years. On the contrary, it's a helpful reminder to make the most of the time I have left. Since I prefer "giving from a warm hand" -- not a cold one -- I find that each year my gifts to others become more generous. 

Most people aren't as comfortable musing about their 100 percent chance of dying, and that's fine. But there is one "death discussion" I'd urge everyone to have. Let's talk about that tomorrow.

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