Moving past the personal focus of the last column, I return to an exploration of death and aging which was begun earlier.
Why is death particularly relevant to aging? Well, for many reasons, it is older people who die in the modern world. Since dying is serious, it raises some issues. In the course of long lives, the elderly endure the deaths of many loved ones, giving rise to more challenges. There are reasons why you see so many seniors at funerals and at family visitations. They understand all about "for whom the bell tolls" and that in many ways it tolls for them.
In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her book, "On Death and Dying," in which she introduced her now famous five psychological stages through dying patients move. It was a pioneering work in the field which helped to generate more research, publication and education. As she later admitted, her five stages did not really work that way in many patients because not all of them die of cancer as her subjects did. The bad thing is that people came to believe that patients are supposed to die in peaceful acceptance, a therapeutic state of grace. They are not obligated to do so.
Further, there are many ways to die for which the stages could not possibly fit. The typical course of Alzheimer's disease often leads to a period when the patient is incapable of rational introspection about self. He or she cannot reach "acceptance."
Family caretakers never know the relief of having a loved one in "acceptance." They may even feel guilty for being glad that the patient is dead, no longer suffering. Friends tell them that she/he is better off now. They are full aware of this fact but mourn their loss anyway. Their grief is short-circuited by the nature of their loved one's illness. Many other health problems have similar patterns of incurability and prolonged dependency.
So, death comes to the elderly because they are people and all people die. How do they feel about that? How should they feel? Even wise men disagree. Dylan Thomas urged his aged and ailing father, "Do not go gentle into that fair night," but rather to "rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Robert Louis Stephenson wrote as his epitaph, "Here he lies where he longed to be."
Thomas wrote hoping to preserve his father's life for a time, but was young and unacquainted with suffering. As a child, Stephenson was "sickly" and never was truly healthy. Perhaps he was ready to be free from his suffering. Perspective is shaped by experience.
To the aged person facing terminal illness, it is all right to feel and want whatever you wish. There is no single right way to die.
To the surviving elderly spouse who has lost a loved one — from whatever illness — go ahead with your grief. It is okay to scream out loud because you are alone and lonely. Memories do not always help. They sometimes hurt. You need your loved one back to fill up the emptiness.
To family members and friends in both situations, be patient, supportive and accepting. You do not have to understand everything that is going on or "straighten out" their wrong ideas or actions. You could be wrong yourself.
"Death with dignity" has been defined as "allowing the person to die in character." I have been with precious loved ones who did die in character. That is the way to go.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.