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King: It's time for an honest look at death

POSTED: February 19, 2013 1:00 a.m.

“I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” — Woody Allen

I’ve laughed at this many times. Just the same I don’t agree with Mr. Allen. I do want to be around when it happens. I want to be cognizant. I want to know. After all, death is last great adventure.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not anxious to die. Each day on this earth I see something new, something beautiful, something that makes me wonder at the glory of it all. But I’m not afraid of dying, and frankly I don’t understand why anyone is.

Survival is a basic instinct shared by all sentient creatures, and all creatures react to perceived threat. In other words, they will fight to stay alive. But humankind is the only creature that is aware of death itself, aware and all too often afraid.

I understand grief. Last summer I lost a friend of almost 60 years, 60 years of letters, telephone calls, and visits. I could talk to this woman about anything, and no one will ever take her place. So I grieve, but not for her. She wanted to die. I grieve for myself.

My friend had been a teacher, an independent woman who loved learning and the world of ideas. When she began to suspect she had early Alzheimer’s, she was distraught. For her, life without mind was intolerable. She wanted to die. There was nothing I or her daughters could do but watch as she became more confused and more desperately unhappy.

So, no, I don’t fear death. I do fear not being able to die should my life become intolerable. I’m a responsible person. I’ve raised three children and one grandchild, but just as no one has the right to tell me I’m no longer useful and should get out of the way, no one has the right to tell me I can’t end my life when I’m ready to go.

We rejoice when a new life comes into the world. We grieve when a life is lost. This is good, but it is also irrational. No matter how loving the parents, every newborn will eventually face some level of stress, frustration and disappointment.

And this too is good. Without a certain amount of pain, the child will not mature, but the pain is real nonetheless. When an individual dies, the pain ends. We often say of the deceased, he or she has gone to a better place. Are these just comforting words, or do we really believe it?

It’s time Americans had a serious discussion about dying. We’ve developed an advanced technology that can extend life. Now we need to develop the wisdom to let go of life when the time comes

Life isn’t just a beating heart. It is memory, cognition and body function. Dementia destroys all three, and it is increasing in the U.S. Approximately 4 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s. By 2050, the number is expected to rise to as many as 16 million.

Writing about death is dangerous for a columnist. It is still a taboo subject, so let’s get this clear right now: I am not proposing euthanasia. I’m challenging readers to be honest with themselves. Presently only two states allow assisted suicide and then only under stringent conditions. As the political climate changes, more states will probably join them. In Georgia, however, the legislature recently passed a law making it a crime to help anyone die.

The government is not only telling people how to live, it’s telling them how to die. But I’m not speaking to the government. I am speaking to people. If we think about it, we’ll realize that death is not something to be feared. On the contrary, it can be a blessing. To choose when and how to die is the ultimate test of freedom in a civilized society.

Joan King is a Sautee resident whose columns appear biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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