This summer, I began reading a book that gave me a new viewpoint on the medical profession. I certainly won’t craft my entire focus around it, but it gave me some interesting perspectives…
On Death and Dying is a book written by a psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who recounts the information she has gained through her interactions with terminally ill people and patients. At first she introduces the reader to the familiar side of the profession, with its research and the general humanity found in saving lives, the years of medical school, and the traditional mentality of doctors. However, she also mentions a side most people don’t think about: that prolonging life may not be equivalent to saving it.
She begins by talking about the denial of death that patients felt, resorting to various coping mechanisms when they learn of their impending fate. This denial is not exclusively for the terminally ill, however. Most people feel this way, because the concept of death is inconceivable for the human mind. She also proposes the idea that in common healthcare practices, refusal to acknowledge the patients’ wants and needs is an attempt to dehumanize the situation, resulting in avoidance of facing death. During operations, a patient is treated like a machine, and their comforts and desires are not considered. This absorption of the doctors into the mechanical aspects is an attempt to distract themselves from facing death that is reflected in the patient.
I also learned that fear of death is often associated with fear of being forgotten. This stands in line with what I have learned in evolutionary biology, the concept of existing solely to survive and reproduce. While that remains a heavily simplified version of human existence, it lives at our core. By surviving and reproducing, we ensure that a part of us continues on, and fear of leaving this Earth is mitigated slightly.
Dr. Kubler-Ross had to face her own death at some point, and did not take it well. However, her own experience with death and dying patients supports her own reaction, and its important for us to realize that. She mentions in this article that she doubted whether her nurses or anyone had seen her life’s work after they treated her in the manner that they did. Well, I wish to take that viewpoint and use her life’s work in my own practice. This book and Dr. Kubler-Ross’ history have shown me a different side of medicine: a side that defies the conventional beliefs of prolonging life, and focuses on the patient’s wellbeing. Hopefully, more people read this book, and take away from it that fear of death can only be overwhelmed by confronting it.
November 20th Update:
For the longest time, I had a paralyzing fear of death. I’ve woken up screaming, and have held a constant fear over my shoulder because of it. Reading this book was an attempt to overcome it, yet the article about Kubler-Ross’s difficulty facing her own death seemed like the ultimate paradox, and may have triggered my panic again. However, on October 2nd, I experienced a revelation…
I was in a dream, and sitting in a semi-large white room with no decorations save for a TV. Around me in the other chairs were the people I had hated most throughout my life. There were about 5 of them, and they were the cruelest people I knew. They were the ones that had bullied me, had tried to put me down, prop themselves up as leaders. These were the popular kids, from which you would expect nothing but happiness and kindness, the figureheads of student government. I burned with hatred, but was interrupted by a door opening and a man walking in with a white lab coat and a mask over his head. He told us we were all sentenced to die, and would do so with lethal injection. So he injected all of us individually and we waited to die. We didn’t know when, but we knew we would. We started watching TV, all the fight drained of us. As the symptoms began to kick in, we started to get cloudy vision, and I looked around at the people with me.
I felt no hatred. I wasn’t thinking of my family, my sister, my life, nothing. Just in that moment. My breathing slowed and became harder, and the pain in my chest grew. I said goodbye to everyone and collapsed, only to wake up in bed. I would like to say that in that dream, I died. And I felt no fear from dying because I had no regrets for anything. That’s when I realized death is only painful when you have regrets. Otherwise, it is about the most peaceful thing there could be. Fear is painful, death with regret is painful, but death itself is not painful.
I overcame my fear of death that day, and I started living my life differently. I still get irritated by the same things, but the fear I once had was lifted in that transformative experience. That was the day I grew up.