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No Better Way to Die
"Death is so often poeticized, gilded, and polished with a grace that feels wishful"
By Nicholas Russell
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas.
Part of life is the ongoing dealing-with of things that happen to you.
My grandfather has been dying for the last six months or so. We all thought the end would arrive a lot sooner. Instead, my grandfather’s health has drifted back and forth from the brink. A significant part of my family (though not me), including, until his retirement, my grandfather, work in the medical field in some capacity; one of my uncles, the anesthesiologist, and the eldest brother, has always had the wily sensibility of someone who has experienced something life-threatening and comes out the other end hungry for everything that defies death. Not in the Tom Cruise sense, but in the opens-his-arms-to-the-heavens-on-a-nice-day sense. Another uncle, a physician's assistant in orthopedic surgery, used to work in mental hospitals. And another, an x-ray tech, majored in music before switching to a more stable career. As such, this protracted grieving process we’ve weathered has been characterized by a refreshing frankness and honesty about death that can be hard to come by.
And yet, at various times, for reasons understandable and foolish, my family has tried to sidestep the finer emotional details that follow these situations. Each of my uncles, and in his way, my grandfather, has had a profound effect on my upbringing and each has done more for my ability to properly grieve than any woo-woo therapy speak. The contradiction is that they sometimes don’t have the luxury of metabolizing their own good advice. We were all raised Catholic, derided by some as a death-obsessed religion, but what we have gleaned from it, though most of us no longer go to church, is a plainness about the end of life. Helpful in breaking through illusions, in coming to terms with what can often mean the gruesome, taxing, boring process of death. Less so emotionally. My grandfather's decline, when it hasn’t been simple, even seemingly dormant, has been monotonous and lacking in grace. He has, in his greatest moments of pain, proclaimed himself to be a king, has demonstrated himself to be a much crueler and harsher person than any of us would like to admit. Much of this behavior is the sure result of the existential bus stop at which my grandfather finds himself, in pain, trapped in his body, no longer independent.
None of us would have been able to observe this state of being in any real detail if our family hadn't decided to care for him, a conveyor belt of relations, staying in the house to help my grandmother, who is quickly losing her memory, and my adopted uncle, who has shouldered a great deal of the day-to-day labor. I live near a fairly large geriatric community with various hospice centers. We have friends who visit their grandparents and great aunts and uncles in these places, who consider the staff an extension of their family, who, for reasons that make sense and suit them, have decided this is the best option. There is an argument to be made, though it has proven less and less convincing to us with time, that no one should have to be around for a loved one's most agonizing final hours. It abrades the opposing fantasy, that of generations of a family crowding the patriarch’s bedside as he breathes his last goodbyes.
The conversation of hospice, of a facility, was floated in the early stages, when my grandfather could still walk on his own, though it would have robbed each of us of the ugly, lucid experience of understanding what it means to watch a loved one slowly wither. The American mortician Caitlin Doughty, who has evangelized the pop-science equivalent of death acceptance, writes in her book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes that, “a culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death.” It’s a sound principle, one I frequently find myself mentioning to people, this collective turning away that extends not just to death but to interaction and sociality. American death culture is one of facades and exploitative convenience. It can generate needless difficulty for families and loved ones processing their grief because so much of this culture revolves around the calculus of unseen emotion, or its inverse, disingenuous performance, as somehow equal to dignity. It is rare for people to witness, or choose to witness, a death that is short, graceful, or dignified. It can cause undue guilt or shame to admit that dying can be a repulsive thing to see, perhaps because, until death finally comes, the process that precedes it mimics the throes of life and so feels like a trick. Which is to say that, though it might sound pedantic, death is an active thing and its form, its rate can change.
Of course, it’s not always linear or predictable. My relatives have struggled with addiction, psychotic episodes, isolation, sometimes a kind of silent but firm exile from the rest of the family, dramas and feuds and messy history referenced but never spoken about, until a death occurred, and then all would be silent. Sometimes, there are certain recognizable rhythms that come toward the end, signs like weather patterns; and there are others that happen quickly, without the luxury of anticipation. Whether or not we are afforded time to prepare for someone’s death, there is still the choice in grief of confronting or not confronting the mythologies we’ve created, about ourselves, our relationship to the deceased, and the deceased themselves. Following the suicide of her teenage son, in a short story called “When we were happy we had other names,” Yiyun Li wrote, “But what difference did seeing make? Perhaps grief was nothing but disbelief…Perhaps grief was the recognition of having run out of illusions…True grief, beginning with disbelief and often ending elsewhere, was never too late.”
Rather than grit our teeth and push forward, some of my family have continued a tradition of careful redaction, red-flagged topics and time periods omitted like hopping over a pothole in the ground. Good reason, one would think, to develop ways to cope and communicate, though of course, that isn’t always the case. Throughout this period, it has been difficult to separate the ideal of what I would like this situation to be—no less taxing, but at least punctuated with a cinematic unprompted good will and patience—from what has actually occurred. Material circumstances, and the fact that my family is made up of real people and not posable action figures, make that dream impossible. Nuance, tact, tenderness, all qualities that have grown more apparent among my family with time, have historically been made up for with frankness. But being blunt is not a strategy that can remedy every situation.
In the midst of this work of caring for my grandfather, our family has come face-to-face with the banal reality that death is so often poeticized, gilded, and polished with a grace that feels wishful. During a recent evening conversation with one of my uncles outside my grandparents’ house, after my grandfather had had a particularly bad day, my uncle told me that the term “stable” in reference to a patient’s condition isn’t always a sure indication of recovery, that sometimes it’s little more than a dodge that families nonetheless cling to, and that, in the case of Lolo, it would be tantamount to a lie because it would mean he was going to get, and stay, better. There was a kind of comfort in this exchange, that much sought-after adult conversation with an idolized relative, but it didn’t spell out what might be done between now and the end, to say nothing of how one deals with the end. I asked my uncle how he was doing. He was still in his scrubs from a shift earlier that day and he looked tired. “Um…” and then he said what we tend to say, whether it’s true or not. “I’m okay.”
My grandfather's legacy will be greatly contested when he is gone. Some of my relatives doubt this. In truth, it's already happening. Mental health hasn’t always been an issue that our family has dealt with well. When my biological grandmother committed suicide in her early 30s, I didn't learn about her, or at the very least, don’t recall fewer than a handful of conversations about her, until my teens. But here, in this situation, all of us have had the opportunity to face a tangible reality that has made us rethink our relationships with my grandfather, with each other, and with our notions of what it means to be both respectful and unflinching, to be truthful to what is happening so that we say what we mean and not what we wish we could. There is little room for convenience in grief. What I’ve learned in this process that has never felt like a lesson is that it takes the unavoidable to upset our benumbed rhythms. It’s true that modern life can feel like a rebuke against itself, a constant supply of evidence to the contrary. This myopia that can become a turning inward away from each other, leaves us alone, exposed yet blind to our individual ignorances, suspicious, uncharitable.
The specificity of what Caitlin Doughty and others who invoke it mean by a good death is illusive. And yet I agree with her that the closest we can get to enabling it for ourselves and for each other is not to mime comfort with it through pat metaphors or condescending sentiment, but the open acknowledgement that it shouldn’t be handled alone. Death makes life seem both more precious and more frightening by comparison, maybe unfairly so—an existential distortion. For some, this exaggeration, which has truth somewhere in it, contributes to a willingness to separate the unfathomable from the realm of everyday life. It is a task, to put it mildly, to figure out how to deal with a void that cannot be filled in again, but I would argue it is even more so when you forgo the tangible, uncomfortable lead-up to it. St. Teresa of Avila said that God has no hands except for our hands, which, even if you’re not Christian, resonates for the fact that all we can do to make things easier for each other is to labor towards a collective relief, working and speaking in tandem to clear an open, generous path.