15 December 2010: From death (Elizabeth Edward’s), thoughts about life

From death, thoughts about life

I never met Elizabeth Edwards, and my life is less for that. Elizabeth embodied much of what I value in any human: strength, intelligence, articulation, compassion, insight.

The manner in which she accepted the reality of her end reaffirmed my attitude. When told there was no hope and, therefore, no point in continuing the fight of the cancer with which she had struggled for six years, she opted—perhaps her life’s last decision—to forego further treatment and to accept death with dignity. It came quickly sparing her possibly weeks of unnecessary intense pain.

Elizabeth’s death for me was also synchronistic in that I had already planned to write on the topic, sans mention of her, of not only accepting death with dignity but also having the right to do so.

In a Denver Post column on November 28 titled “Lessons in dying: What is wrong with giving up when our bodies give out?”, Margery Fridstein, a psychological counselor, writes about two of her life experiences with helping her husband and a close friend die. In context of those and her life-long practice, Fridstein asks simply yet thought-provokingly, “I don’t get it: Why are so many older people afraid to die? We know we can’t live forever. What is wrong with giving up or giving in when our bodies can no longer hold up?”

On December 5, the Post published five letters in response to Fridstein’s piece, four of them by women. That struck me as more than coincidental. I wondered if the nature of the topic either frightened men or whether the idea of accepting death is anathema to them, as ironic as that might seem. The one letter from a man, which added nothing to the conversation, was couched in Catholic orthodoxy citing Pope Benedict and asserting, “Only God decides the time of our passing from this life to the next.”

Conversely, each woman’s writing took a different perspective and was written on the basis of her personal experiences—thoughtful, reflective, and compassionate in tone—and fearlessly grounded in reality without reference to religious dogma or myth.

“As this generation of baby boomers ages,” states one, “I know I, and many of my friends, would like the option of dying with dignity and weighing quality of life vs. quantity.”

Another tells of her “gift of life” by way of intensive treatment 31 years ago, noting “We seldom know the specific impact we have on the world around us, but I think we can trust that we are to accept the gift of life and do our best.”

The other two focus on the “systemic problems” in our health care “that reflect our culture’s denial of the inevitability of death” and the need for “physician-assisted dying for those who want death with dignity.”

When one of my old friends lay dying, another commented that “dying is hard work.” Yes, it is, I agreed, and we make it even harder for them with our inane attitudes and legal proscriptions about helping those terminally ill die not only peacefully but quickly.

I find the five women writers’ insights and Elizabeth Edwards’ courageous acceptance of the reality of her imminent death telling. I think far more than men, women tend to get it: They are the givers of life and the primary caregivers and nurturers through it, and intuitively they seem to understand and accept another’s end more readily than men. Is it part of nature that females are intricately connected with the ultimate reality of life while males remain detached?

I wonder if the reason we send young men and women to die in war and paradoxically enact laws prohibiting caregivers from assisting those near death to die with dignity is that our leadership is heavily male dominated—men willing to kill and order others to kill in hideous fashion while incongruently being unable or unwilling to help or allow those whose time has come die more humanely.

Elizabeth Edwards was no saint—her encouraging husband John to pursue the 2008 Democratic nomination knowing of his philandering was inexcusable—but she was a powerful woman who selflessly fought the fight for others, primarily on health care, and lived life to the fullest.

At the end, I cannot imagine her harboring any regrets. Because of that, despite never meeting her, I shall miss her spirit and am grateful for her presence and being such a positive force in the time she had.

Postscript: Given the holiday season, this topic might seem out of place. Death, though, knows no holiday, and having lost a loved one during this time can make it especially challenging.


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