Facing Death Openly by Nick Allen
Nick Allen was an SOHP field scholar during the 2018-2019 academic year. He recently received his M.A. in English and Comparative Literature at UNC, with a focus on Literature, Medicine, and Culture. Nick recorded many oral histories with narrators focusing on themes on death and dying. Here he shares his final piece from his series on Oral History, Death, and Dying. (We are very pleased to say that we’ve managed to keep Nick onboard at SOHP to continue working on Stories to Save Lives. Stay tuned for more adventures from Nick Allen, SOHP employee.)
In my last post, Carl Henley discussed confronting death hand-in-hand with his wife. Their shared experience of accepting what was happening to them was powerful and serendipitous, but it was also very close to “the end.” In this post, I’d like to share clips from three narrators who face the reality of their deaths somewhat sooner. I hope you’ll share my enthusiasm for their bravery and their candor.
Although we might say that in two of these stories the dying person is compelled to confront death due to terminal illness, we can find countless examples of terminally ill patients who never truly face their deaths. I don’t find that their hand being “forced” detracts from the way that they comport themselves during this last chapter. Their poise in the face of death is laudable. The way that they have decided where the line of “too much care” is speaks to a way of being in the world that we need so much more of.
By articulating our feelings about death and dying with nuance, even if we must engage with existential crises, we also give meaning to life. If we allow the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” to create binaries in our paradigms of life and death, then we risk devaluing the important moments in life. If we value life as a biological fact above all else, we assert that every moment of life has the same level of meaning and significance because it shares the trait we apparently value most: a beating heart. When we openly express that some degrees of that life/living are unacceptable to us, like brain-death, a life of ventilator support, or perhaps even the inability to watch football on TV, we give more meaning to every moment of life that is acceptable to us. We acknowledge that these moments are temporary and we feel compelled to cherish them.
After reflecting on a career at the bedside of dying patients, narrator Marie Vargo-Flynn said, “The whole thing is, don’t take the day you have for granted! Tell people you love them every day.” To flip this idea into thanatological terms, our inability to engage with death as a concrete thing and necessary, even desirable eventuality for our lives, equates to an inability to fully engage with life’s value. Dying, after all, is for the living.
If you’d like to experience more oral histories of death and dying, please check out my Virtual Reality experience “There at the Bridge” by following this link.