(Photo by Aron on Unsplash)
This is too big for you?
You don’t know how to handle it?
I thought I’d look at extinction through the lens of hospice. They know about dying. And then you scale it to a planetary dimension: a planetary hospice. I planned a series of interviews about how to prep for extinction.
I knew, that Midge and David are involved in hospice work. So I have asked them to have an interview. They both agreed, but they preferred to answer in written form. The results are two great, personal, wise and touching letters. After reading their thoughts on hospice and extinction, I have to admit that it doesn’t work that way with the planetary hospice.
We can’t really prepare for our extinction.
But we can learn so much from hospice work for our living and dying, for our personal environment. So let’s listen (or read) to what Midge and David have to say.
Own experiences with dying
I felt strongly that it was going to fall to me (of the 3 children in my family) to help my parents prepare for their deaths. Neither my sister nor brother were able or willing to take on that task. I helped my parents prepare their end of life documents so their wishes were clearly understood. I had several conversations with them about how they wanted things handled when they died (funeral service, cremation, etc.). Both parents suffered from dementia for the last 7-8 years of their lives. They were fiercely independent and initially refused my offers to help. As they got older and their respective conditions deteriorated, they became more willing. They were each on hospice for a relatively short time before they died. My intention in helping them was to do everything I could to ease their transition out of this life, and have no regrets. It was a difficult, sad, unpredictable time, but I did my best.
For Midge observing animals living and dying has been an important experience:
I have had quite a few dogs and cats, and learned a lot watching them live their lives, then die. In some ways, my grief over my beloved animal companions was as acute as what I’ve experienced with human deaths.
David about his experiences with dying:
I have experienced the death of one grandmother, both my parents and both of Midge’s parents. In all five instances they lived full lives and after their deaths I had a sense of acceptance and a minimum experience of grief. I think about my parents often but I accept they are gone, never to be experienced again. If Midge or either of my children were to die, I believe my reaction would be considerably less well contained as I am considerably more connected to them than I was to the parents, and their deaths, especially my children’s, would be untimely.
Concerning my own death, I was fortunate at an early age to conclude that there is absolutely nothing after death, no heaven, no soul that sustains, no reincarnation. Therefore, I became my own authority and live life as purposefully and lovingly as I can.
How did you come to volunteer for a hospice?
At least 30 years ago, I read the book Who Dies, by the Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine. It touched me deeply, and triggered a deep knowing that part of my purpose in this lifetime would be to work with people who were dying. I wasn’t sure exactly how, or when, but I knew with certainty that it would be important to me. I have never experienced the typical American fear/aversion/avoidance of death. I have always felt peaceful and accepting about death—both my own and the deaths of others.
I was so impressed with the way hospice cared for my mother, and knew then that I wanted to volunteer. I started in California shortly after her death in 2010. I did mostly respite care, sitting at the bedside of dying people.
When David and I moved to Washington in late 2014, I started volunteering with our local hospice. I started out doing respite care, then became a leader of grief support groups. (Although I do not have professional degree or training, I have been a yoga teacher and spiritual counselor for many years, and feel a particular affinity for helping people navigate challenging emotional states). I have been leading grief support groups for over two years, and feel like this is the work I am meant to do.
David about his motivations to work in a hospice:
I decided to get involved in hospice work because I wanted to maintain meaning and purpose in my life after having been a dentist for 42 years. Selfishly, I believe that by serving the dying community I am putting myself intimately in touch with dying and hoping to learn something about grace and dignity in the death process. I have jumped in with both feet, became a board member a year and a half ago and in January was chosen to be president of the board. I love the responsibility and am leading this organization at a time of great change, both for our hospice and for the entire field of hospice care.
Is hospice as dark, sad, kind of violent as many might think?
David and I are lucky in that we volunteer for a not-for-profit hospice (quite rare in this country). All services are offered at no charge to the patient and their families.
There is nothing dark, sad, or violent about hospice, despite what some people think. Sadly, many people have fears about hospice, think it’s just a place where you go to die, that it means you’ve given up. As a result, most people wait too long before engaging the services of a hospice, and miss out on months of comfort care and emotional/spiritual support, as well as support and care for family members that extends beyond the death of their loved one.
Many people actually improve in hospice, at least initially. They are taken off a lot of toxic medications, as only comfort care measures are put in place. They stop the endless round of doctor visits, hospitalizations, surgeries, and more drugs. The emphasis is on quality of life and peaceful acceptance of the inevitability of death. Many of them are able to live out their last weeks or months in relative peace at home, in the presence of loved ones, rather than in a hospital hooked up to machines and tubes.
First, at the bedside there is very little joy or humor. The patient is actively dying, both physically and emotionally and it is our job to meet them where they are. I have no experience of darkness or violence. Although most families come to hospice very late in the dying process, they universally have a wonderful experience of help, support and love that makes the dying more manageable. Our services are available for at least 6 months but the average hospice care in the US is something like one to two weeks, which is very sad. And of course much of the interaction of patient, family and hospice is tinged with sadness. But there is also a sense of community, gratitude and a sense of love.
If we anticipate a mass dying in the not so distant future, what can we learn from hospice?
I believe it’s too late for global activism. Nothing is going to change the trajectory of destruction at this point. So (as David always asks) what’s the best use of my time?
For me, the important things are attending to my relationships, especially with my husband, step-children, sister and niece. To care for my cats and my garden. To grow organic food (that might sustain us for a while as things fall apart), to be a loving and attentive member of my community through my hospice work and other community activities (yoga, helping elderly friends, etc.). I also am a member of a local Threshold Choir—a group of women who sing a cappella at the bedside of people who are dying.
As more mainstream deniers come to realize the truth of our predicament, I believe there is going to be widespread panic and chaos. I will do my part to offer love, comfort, and consolation to all who are willing to receive it.
Virtual extinction of the human race over a very short geological time frame is entirely new territory for humanity to comprehend and much of classic hospice does not translate well. Most are healthy and everyone is dying. Therefore, maybe a better question is what universal principles relate closely to both hospice and extinction. Neither is something that should be done alone. Both require support and care, love and compassion. As a survivor, grieving multiple untimely deaths will be insurmountable. There will be no recovery.
And so, the most important question for me is what can any of us do with the remaining time to become dignified, brave and graceful enough to do what no humans have ever done; oversee the death of everything and our own death at the same time? This leads back to the question of why be involved in hospice. I think that getting deeply involved with dying now is giving me an opportunity to become the best and most complete person I can so that I can be there for my loved ones and myself through the great dying.
In the end, David expresses his idea of an extinction event even more clearly:
It is an ugly thing to close with but I have come to the conclusion that as humanity is swept away it will be horrific. Most of us will die by predation, disease, starvation or suicide.
I agree and I have to give up my naive belief that we will be able to build a worldwide safe place for dying like a hospice. But that does not mean, that there is nothing to do. At least we can try to prepare for our own death.
For me personally, as I came to understand and believe in NTHE, I treated that knowledge as if I had received my own personal terminal diagnosis. I began thinking about the end of my life and the things that are important to me. As a person prepares to die, whether alone or en masse, certain things emerge as important to think about and resolve, as a person reflects on the arc of his or her life:
- Have I accomplished those things that were important to me? Are there things I have not yet done that I’d like to do before I die? Is it possible to do them?
- Has my life had meaning, both for myself and those with whom I come in contact?
- Is there anyone from whom I need to ask forgiveness?
- Are there those I need to forgive (including myself)?
- Are there relationships in my life that need healing or reconciliation before I die?
- What do I need to say or do in order to feel complete with this incarnation?
- What legacy am I leaving for future generations? (Sadly, NTHE makes this question unnecessary.)
I absolutely share a wish with Midge:
One of my deepest wishes for myself and those I love is to exit this planet in a state of peace. I fully realize how impossible a goal that probably is.
That’s a summary of the whole article/podcast episode. So, once again:
One of my deepest wishes for myself and those I love is to exit this planet in a state of peace.