As a part-time member of the Palliative Care Team at local hospital, I probably talk about death more than most people do. Palliative care focuses on improving the quality of life and mitigating suffering for people with serious illnesses. You might be thinking that our world could use some palliative care right now, but the difference between our world and most of my palliative care patients is that the world will get better and they won’t. Unlike the coronavirus experience, the palliative care experience is not looking ahead to when things will return to normal. It is trying to make peace with a life that is slipping away and a death that is approaching.
I often find myself in a position at the hospital where the most meaningful question I can ask a patient is, “Are you afraid of dying?” Under most circumstances, this might come off as kind of weird and intrusive, but to someone who is dying this question can come as a great relief. For the record, just because I have the presence to ask this question doesn’t mean that I am beyond the fear of death myself. I am scared by roller coasters and computer malfunctions, so it is only natural that death would scare me even more. I once had a patient who was pronounced dead and suddenly came back to life. He assured me that death wasn’t anything to fear. He said it was like floating down a tranquil river towards a calming light.
I mention death because the fear of it keeps hanging in the air during this crisis. It is the big fear that is lurking behind all of our smaller fears. Although I might not have realized at first, I think I began working in a hospital two afternoons a week so I could get on friendlier terms with my own mortality. I figured I should at least be able to relate to death as bravely and curiously as my schizophrenic brother. When he found out he had terminal cancer, he said to me, “That’s okay, Danny. I’ve lived long enough. I guess I’ll just start getting ready for whatever awaits me next.”
Most of us don’t share my brother’s perspective that we have lived long enough. We want to live longer. We want to experience new things and more of the old things. I know I do. I am not ready to be killed by a virus. I am ready to throw down my gloves like a hockey player and give that damn virus everything that I got. That is why I keep doing my push-ups and taking my vitamins, even though I understand that push-ups aren’t going to help with death anxiety. The only true anecdote for death anxiety is to keep living fully—even with all of the restrictions during these pandemic times.