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I’ve had death on my mind lately.
This isn’t unusual. Even as a child, I had an all-too-vivid imagination, supplemented by exposure to completely age-inappropriate movies and books, thanks in part to a classic ‘weekend dad’ scenario. I remember being eleven-years old and leaving the novel Misery by Stephen King upstairs after finishing it, then going downstairs to bed, thinking that if the book came with me, its darkness might reach me as I slept.
I have endured violent or gut-wrenching intrusive thoughts for as long as I can remember. When I asked my sister and my friends how frequently they envision, quite against their will, the death or the torture of their loves ones, I was surprised to hear that this is not exactly a common thing. More than just imaginings, my entire body gets on board, activating the sympathetic nervous system until I feel that a crisis is unavoidable.
It’s only as an adult that I’ve learned skills to alleviate the distress cause by this novel combination of anxiety and an emphatic imagination. Despite these skills, such as meditation, dialectical behavioural therapy techniques, and an eye-rolling acceptance of my own mind, I still sometimes find myself swept up in death. I work in a profession where clients are vulnerable and at-risk — and sometimes they die. I’ve volunteered with women of all ages, and sometimes they die as well. There are too-frequent drug overdoses in our community (which by now seem like they should be investigated as murders as very few drug users actively intend to overdose and yet someone is causing these drugs to be extraordinarily lethal) and our senior-skewed population both mean that community members die.
This is normal. Death is a completely normal, typical, traditional, inevitable thing.
There are two things I find to be abnormal about death. The first is our resistance or inability to discuss it openly, rather allowing it to become a spectre in our periphery. Euphemisms abound: passed away, no longer with us, at rest, at peace, departed. We implore people to fight, to battle, to rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The militaristic language of certain ailments, especially cancer, keeps us disconnected from reality. “Keep fighting! Be strong! You can win this battle.” There is also an element of victim-blaming. If they had only fought harder, maybe they would have lived. What if they don’t want to fight anymore? What if they are simply dying and have to accept that? I wonder if we think that we know how we would react to a terminal illness. I think we don’t, unless we’ve been there. Even my imagination isn’t that good.
Yvonne Heath, author of Love Your Life to Death, has a quote that I absolutely love: “The best time to talk about, plan and prepare for grief is when we are young and healthy. The next best time is now!” After reading her book, I had the hard conversation with my mom about how she wanted to die. It wasn’t even awkward. It was a beautiful, hilarious, difficult conversation. I’ve had intrusive thoughts about my mom dying since I was 12. Initially, I was afraid the conversation would fuel them to greater fervor, but it had the opposite effect. I became confident that her wishes for her death could be easily met and confident in my ability to meet that challenge as it comes. I have had the conversation about my own wishes with my loved ones (for example, how I think it’s unfair that I can’t just be buried in the woods somewhere; I’m not really a social type so the cemetery isn’t for me, but I happen to think cremation is a waste of perfectly good worm food), and every time, it’s a funny, odd discussion that enlightens me about the way I view death and the way others view me.
I recommend just jumping right in — ask “What do you think about death and dying?” It’s a real ice-breaker. You may be completely surprised by the stance of someone you know well!
The second thing I find abnormal about death in our culture is how little control we allow people over it. In June 2016, the federal government passed bill C-14, which outlines under which circumstances people can choose medical assistance in dying, or MAID. As you know from my other writings, I am pro-choice. I am pro-choice when it comes to the beginning of life and also when it comes to death. I believe people should be able to choose what their death looks like, who will be present, and when their end has come. The legal requirements for MAID are stringent and medical professionals do not have to perform it (they are called conscientious objectors) but they must provide a referral to a doctor who will.
That’s just the first hurdle. One of the biggest points of contention on this law is the requirement that the patient be of entirely sound mind throughout the process. Of course, they must be mentally sound when the decision is first reached, but too many people are later deemed ineligible because they have lost mental capacity due to the progression of their illness, leaving them to die in slow, often ignoble ways, usually heavily medicated. Not the choice they made, but the only death the government will allow at that point. The result of this parameter is that people are choosing to die by MAID earlier than they want for fear that they will lose their mental capacity to consent and the choice will be taken from them.
The law is in its beginning stages. There are controversies around mature minors choosing MAID, those with mental illness seeking it, and as mentioned above, advance requests while still mentally sound. The approved candidate for MAID is rare; Muskoka has had few cases, one of which I look forward to writing about in a future article. These stories need to be shared because they are real, and impactful, and happening right now.
Whether you agree or disagree or decline an opinion on MAID, I urge you to learn more about it as it will become increasingly relevant in the lives of people you know and possibly your own. Start slow — contemplate deeply what you desire for yourself. Ensure the people around you know your wishes, from resuscitation to organ donation to MAID to how to celebrate you once you’re dead and gone.
Don’t be afraid to talk about death — it’s one of the very few experiences every single last one of us share.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.