Note to Teachers: We don’t deal with the subject of death often, but given the devastating pandemic in the world, we thought this article might help students reflect on their own understanding of mortality.
The past year was full of deaths: More than 300,000 people in the United States and 1.6 million worldwide have died from the coronavirus.
Has the pandemic changed your understanding of death and dying? Did you have to mourn the death of a loved one? Has it made you think more about your own mortality? Did it make you appreciate the impermanence of life? Or did the amazing numbers make you feel numb?
In “What is Death?” Writes Dr. BJ Miller on how the coronavirus pandemic has changed our understanding of mortality and offers a variety of frameworks for thinking about death:
This year raised us to the fact that we are dying. We have always known it was true in a technical sense, but a pandemic requires us to internalize that understanding. It is one thing to acknowledge the death of others and another to accept our own. It’s not just emotionally exhausting; it’s hard to imagine. Doing this means imagining it, anticipating it, and most importantly, personalizing it. Your life. Her death.
The daily deaths and hospital stays from Covid-19 read like a ticker tape or the weather report. This week the death toll in the US exceeded 300,000. There are more than 1.6 million worldwide. The cumulative effect is shock fatigue or deafness, but instead of turning away we need to incorporate death into our lives. We really only have two options: to share life with death or to be robbed by death.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze. We animals are wired to react to anything that threatens our existence. We have not evolved morally or socially to deal with a healthcare system with technological forces that are almost divine. Dying is no longer as intuitive as it used to be, and death is not necessarily the great compensation. Modern medicine can undermine the course of nature, at least for a while, in a variety of ways. However, you must have access to health care for health care to work. And finally, whether because of this virus or something else, whether you are young or old, rich or poor, death still comes.
What is death I’ve thought a lot about the question, despite practicing medicine for many years to realize that I had to ask it. Like almost everyone else, I thought death was a simple fact, a unique event. A noun. Disgusting, but clearer in its boundaries than anything else. The end. No matter how many times I’ve gotten used to it or how many words I’ve tried on, I still can’t tell what it is.
When we shed the poetry and applique with which our culture seeks to understand death – all the sanctity and style we impose on the wild, sacred journey of a life that begins, rises and falls – we are left with a shell of a body. No pulse, no brain waves, no inspiration, no explanation. Death is defined by what it lacks.
The essay continues:
Fear and isolation aside, perhaps this is what the pandemic has in store for us: understanding that life in the face of death can trigger a cascade of knowledge and appreciation. Death is the force that shows you what you love and urges you to enjoy that love while the clock is ticking. Indulging in love is a sure way to see through and beyond yourself into the wide world in which immortality lives. Quite a brilliant system actually, showing you who you are (limited) and everything you are involved in (huge). As a unifying force, love makes a person much more resistant to extinction.
You may need to relax your need to know what is ahead of you. Instead of spending so much energy keeping pain at bay, you might want to suspend your judgment and let your body do what a body does. When the past, present and future come together as we feel it, then death is a process of becoming.
So what is death all over again? If you are reading this, you will still have time to reply. Since no correct answer is known, you cannot go wrong. You can even make your life the answer to the question.
Student, read the entire article, then tell us:
How often do you think that one day you will die – that we will all die? Does thinking about your own mortality make life more alive for you? Or does it fill you with fear?
How do you see death? Do you agree with one of the Dr. Miller shared perspectives? Do you see death as an illness? An anatomical process? A religious or spiritual experience? Or something else?
Dr. Miller asks, “What is death to you? When do you know that you are done What are you living for in the meantime? “How would you answer these questions and why?
Have you had any experience of death – the death of a loved one, a parishioner, or someone you looked up to? How did this experience shape your understanding of death? How has that affected your own life, if at all?
Is death something that you can easily talk about with your family and community? Why or why not? Do you and your family have rituals – religious, secular, or spiritual – that help you anticipate death and dying?
How well does our society deal with death? Can we look at the meaning of death – and its relationship to life – with care and nuance? Or do we hide from it and minimize it? In your opinion, what better way to address the inevitability of death?