November 21, 2014

Reflections on My Past Reluctance to Talk about Death and Dying

Today, I had planned to share my answers to the same questions Dr. Atul Gawande asked his dying father... a process he recounted in his terrific bestselling new book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. But I need to give those answers more thought.

So instead, I decided to discuss a related issue that has bothered me for years -- how I handled the many conversations I had with my wife in the months she spent at Georgetown University Hospital before her death from cancer in 1978.

I'd usually bike to the hospital from my office. On the 15-minute ride, I'd mentally assemble discussion topics for us -- the same news-weather-and-sports subjects typically bandied about at boring Washington cocktail parties.

My chosen topics were exactly what my wife had NOT been thinking about in her hospital bed. We did talk about our kids, her mother, our history -- subjects I'm sure she brought up. But her thoughts about dying? Never. I was surprised when she asked for my suggestions about her memorial service.

We both would have benefited -- drawn closer -- if I had just shut up and encouraged her to talk.

I can create a small consolation. What we discussed -- and didn't -- was no doubt pretty typical back then. Sadly, I suspect we're not much better today when it comes to talking about death and dying.

I won't let my nearest and dearest get away with it. I'm going to talk about my departure so much that they'll shout "Thank God!" when I finally bite the dust. I've already subjected them to so many death rambles that I wouldn't be surprised to hear one of them mutter quietly, "So Go Already."


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