January 10, 2014
In December, Jahi McMath, an Oakland 13-year-old, was declared brain-dead. Her family refused to pull the plug. After court intervention, Jahi was moved into a care facility. Her prognosis is grim.
It is easy to sympathize with Jahi’s family. It is always difficult to believe someone we love is dead. It must be more difficult when your child’s body is warm and her heart is beating.
There are deep questions here about death, dying and grieving. These perennial issues are made tougher in a culture like ours that is often in denial about death.
I spoke about this with Nate Hinerman, a professor at Golden Gate University. Hinerman is an expert on dying and grieving and the editor of a book about the presence of the dead in our lives.
Hinerman suggests that pop culture makes dying appear as something unnatural — it happens by accident, at the hands of criminals or as a result of medical malfeasance. We no longer see dying as something natural or normal.
Dying happens in institutional settings, instead of in our homes. We don’t see it happening. As a result, we don’t know how to think about it or fit it into our worldview.
Hinerman is also critical of our tendency to pathologize and privatize grief. Instead of viewing grieving as a normal process, we view it as a disease that should be quickly gotten over. When it lingers too long, it can be diagnosed as depression and cured with a pill. But Hinerman suggests there is no right way to grieve.
We also think it is polite to leave the grieving alone. We avoid talking about death and loss because of our own discomfort. We use euphemisms like “passed away” to speak around the issue. And so death and dying recede from ordinary experience, leaving us speechless and clumsy around the bereaved.
Dying and grieving are thus devalued. The whole process is seen as shameful and bad — to be staved off and hidden away. The solution, Hinerman suggests, is to take these things out of the closet. We need more education about dying and grieving. We need to see the process and think about it before it happens to us. And when it does happen, we need quality care both for the patient and for those left behind.
I suspect we also need to simply admit that there is no way out of this life except through the door of death and grief. The world’s philosophical traditions have always made this clear. The path to wisdom is to admit our own mortality and to recognize that everyone we love will someday perish.
But this admission is made harder by the promise of medical science. In December, as Jahi’s case was unfolding, scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging announced that they had extended the lifespan of a nematode — a small worm — by five times. A similar increase for humans would mean a life of 400-500 years.
With the elixir of immortality near at hand, death appears unfair and irrelevant. We don’t expect people to die anymore or want to think about it. It seems fatalistic and pessimistic to accept dying and grieving. Maybe modern science will fulfill the dream of the ancient alchemists and finally cure us of our mortality.
I’m not convinced that longevity would be all we imagine it to be. Life without death might leave us unable to experience the depth of care and love. Love is unique to mortal beings who are aware of our need for care and the potential for loss.
One risk of love is grief. To love someone is to be indelibly affected by their presence. We will be damaged when our loved ones die. But they will also remain present with us. Grief resonates in the empty places in our hearts where those we love uncannily dwell.
Scientific miracles and the alienating institutions of death and dying can confuse us about this. Death is not a good thing. But accepting our mortality may increase the intensity of love and life. Our lover’s beauty, our parents’ twinkling eyes and our children’s joyful laughter are accentuated by the bittersweet awareness that for all its wonders, life is usually far too short.