The Hard Work of Dying

Imagine that you’re preparing for a thirty-day trip to a foreign country and you’re limited to taking only what can be carried in a backpack. Your decisions on what to take or leave behind will determine the quality of your experience. Too many items and the weight will be burdensome. Not enough of the right ones and you might be forced to neglect some basic needs. We make decisions of this type daily. Take what’s important, leave behind what isn’t. But we tend to oblivious to the importance of these decisions for possibly the most momentous journey of our lives—our death.

Bottomless Holes

More than 10 years ago, I saw a black and white photograph by Richard Avedon that I still vividly remember. It was taken of a young boy in 1947 in Sicily. He was in the foreground smiling broadly and wearing a suit that was too short in the arms and too tight in the waist. In the background—softly out of focus—was a tree with a symmetrical oval canopy and a fence that defined the boundary between sky and water. A seemingly bucolic scene unless you looked carefully at the boy.

Counseling at the End of Life

As the debate on heath care reform heated up, the phrase “end of life counseling” was used as a canard by opponents of change. According to many of them, end of life counseling was the equivalent of a death panel where those worthy of saving would be, and those deemed too expensive to maintain would have the plug pulled. One would have to go back to the McCarthy period to find this level of accusation and inaccuracy. But where was it coming from?

The Power of Ritual

It's easy to dismiss rituals as just the historical trappings of ancient religions. Something very beautiful, but having little relevance to our contemporary lives. Nothing can be further from the truth.