A Time to Die

Illustration of dying man Time to DieWhen my friend, Marianne, had a recurrence of a particularly nasty cancer, she fought it for all she was worth. She was only 53 and not ready to die.

Her oncologist told her it was time to sign up with hospice. Instead she plopped down $4,000, crossed the Mexican boarder and returned with a bag load of experimental drugs. She never took them. She was already too sick. The doctor who facilitated this venture from his practice in San Diego failed to advise her to this fact. Such “experimental” or “alternative” doctors abound at the end of the line, exchanging hope for a bagful of money.

She had cyber knife surgery to reduce one of her tumors and give her some additional time. It blew out both her kidneys and increased her chances of renal failure. The surgery may well have been palliative as the tumor was causing considerable discomfort. Whether it actually gave her extra time or reduced it, is anyone’s guess. Over the next month, she entertained each of her three sisters and her brother in her tiny home and got to say goodbye.

Toward the end, her body kept swelling from lymphedema and she could barely walk. Yet she continued to hobble to work up until the day she checked into the hospital for the last time. Semi-coherent from an infusion of pain-killing drugs, she blurted out to a group of us that she still thought she might make it. She was finally moved to a hospice facility, mostly unconscious, three days before she died.

Three days is not much time for hospice to do its job. Hospice is about helping us die. And a lot of hospices are very good at this. A whole team of professionals come by your home to ease your suffering–nurses, social worker, chaplain, volunteer, home health aid. They work with pain of the mind and spirit as well as the body. There is no need for pain as there are many effective drugs, many effective strategies.

Dying can be a powerful time for healing and personal growth. See my film, Facing Death . . . with open eyes or Appointment with a Wise Old Dog, for some inspiring stories about this process. In his book, Dying Well, Ira Byock identifies four things people need to complete in order to “die well”: forgiving others, asking forgiveness, expressing love and gratitude and saying goodby. Not too hard a list to remember, but not always easy to accomplish, especially if you choose to fight death until the bitter end.

So many people do choose to fight, a little too long, until, like Marianne, they are no longer conscious. The average stay in hospice continues to be about two weeks even though a qualified person is entitled to up to six months. Medicare pays for it all if you’re over 65 and many health insurance policies cover it for the younger crowd. It’s a shame to lose out on this highly beneficial service.

The first step to changing our fear-base approach to death is to become curious. Read books, watch films, go to workshops, and pay attention to our reactions to daily loss. Learning to live with dying begins now, not when we are grievously ill and far too stressed and tired to change.

Please share your own thoughts on when it is time to die.


Note: This blog post originally appeared on Blogspot in April of 2010.

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief Transformation Coach Michelle Peticolas, Ph.D. helps people transform their grief with a holistic approach to mind, body and spirit that heals trauma, reframes past attachments and releases limiting beliefs while uncovering a true life purpose and direction. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at www.secretsoflifeanddeath.com


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