Chapter 2: Reflections on Age and Sickness: A Memoir
Chapter 3: Death Education: Does Anyone Need It?
Chapter 4: Is Death a Growth Experience?
Chapter 5: The New Euthanasia
Chapter 6: Considering and Reconsidering Suicide
Chapter 7: Should Mourning Have an End?
Chapter 8: A Case Study of the Philosophy of Death: Christianity
Chapter 9: Heaven, Hell and Beyond
The title of this book, Talking about Dying¸ indicates the two themes that run throughout the chapters, namely, death and language. During the past forty years death has become a fashionable topic or at least there are more books about “death and dying,” the phrase made popular by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross at the end of the 1960s. There is still a question whether we have made progress in honestly and clearly talking about dying. Euphemisms about death are inevitable and sometimes beneficial but at times they are a denial of the facts of life
I began teaching a course on death at the end of the 1970s and I continued to do so until 2009. At least a thousand undergraduate students took the course. I was always surprised and a little worried that so many young people were interested in death. How to study death remained a puzzle to me. Unlike other courses I taught, I could never feel entirely comfortable in confronting the emotions at work in a course on death.
When I started teaching the course, I felt distinctly unqualified because of a lack of experience. My role at first was to participate in a team-taught course. My two colleagues worked full-time with the dying; one worked with children who were dying or whose parents had just died. Those two women were the experts on dying; I was just someone who had read books. Like many people today I had reached adulthood without death touching me directly. But by the time I finished teaching the course, I had experienced the death of both parents, the death of two of my closest friends, and finally the death of my wife. Although both of my original teaching partners were no longer present, I felt I now had at least a base of experience to work from.
The first and longest chapter in this book is a memoir about the sickness and death of my wife, Maria Harris. The piece was originally written as therapy for myself and as information for a few hundred people who knew her well. At the beginning of the essay, I write that I was hesitant about attempting such a memoir because I had never written anything similar. I had no idea how to organize the story or how long it would be. But once I sat down to write the essay it poured out of me almost non-stop. I published it in the small-circulation newsletter that I edit, and I did not intend to do anything further with it. However, when I learned that it had been used with a class in a New York medical school, I decided it might speak to a larger population, especially to people dealing with the difficult issue of dementia.
The second chapter is an attempt to capture the experience of dying from the side of the patient – myself. As it happens, I did not die so the essay lacks a dramatic finish. The essay was published in the same newsletter and it too found its way into a medical school classroom, this time in Philadelphia. The original essay, written six months after cancer surgery, is supplemented by some thoughts a year after that. Maybe when the final run does happen I will add the concluding note.
The seven chapters that follow these two memoirs are further reflections on dying and especially the language we use when we try to talk about dying. I doubt that anyone finds it easy to talk about dying, or perhaps I just distrust anyone who seems completely at ease with the death of someone they love and with their own mortality. I would not deny, however, that there are older people who seem to have “befriended” death and who do not seem to fear dying.
A concern in these chapters is education which should include the reality of death. How a young child first encounters death can have important consequences throughout his or her life. A young child can cope with death if the adults provide a calm atmosphere. All the details need not be loaded upon a child but lying to a child about death is decidedly unhealthy.
A child’s questions force adults to confront their own fear, confusion and inarticulateness about death. Adults have to be careful about using a code language about death that can be misleading to children who take phrases literally. My colleague recounted the case of a child who was terrified when she was told she would view grandma’s body in the funeral parlor. She thought that “body” meant that the head would be missing. It is debatable whether a child viewing a corpse is a good idea; but everyone could probably agree that viewing a headless corpse is not.
Old people are not the main culprits for the disingenuous language that affects talk about dying. The clash of generations is not usually between the young and the old; instead the young and the old are aligned against the middle. That is especially the case when it comes to thoughts and talk about mortality. The very young and the very old share a sense of the cycle of life and death; but the middle-aged have temporarily put that knowledge out of mind.
The problem seems to be greater among men than women. Men are generally less comfortable with acknowledging the frailties of the human body. Perhaps women will catch up with the men as more women compete in the business, political and sports worlds. At present, however, the women are still overwhelmingly the people who care for the babies and the sick and the dying. Women seek medical care much more readily than men do; most women do not suddenly discover at the age of thirty-five or forty that they are mortal.
The flight from mortality among the middle-aged is the chief source of the twists of language that affect talk about dying. It has become common to say that someone “passed away” (or even just “passed”) rather than that the person died. Perhaps that is simply a gentler way of stating the fact of death. However, it is part of a pattern in which dying is seldom spoken about directly, even by people who deal with dying all the time. Surveys show that most patients say that they wish to be told if they are dying; physicians insist that most people do not wish to be told. Neither side is lying. People do have a right to know if they are dying but they may not be ready for the blunt truth all at once. Physicians have to learn to avoid lying about dire situations while at the same time they gradually deliver the bad news.
One development that I note in these chapters is the rehabilitation of some terms to make them legally and morally acceptable. The clearest examples are “suicide” and “euthanasia.” I express some skepticism about this attempt to provide a more positive meaning to these terms. I am not totally opposed to hastening death in some circumstances. I do object to equating suicide or some forms of euthanasia with the phrase “dying with dignity.” There is subterfuge at work in calling a ballot initiative for suicide “the death with dignity act.” Is there anyone lobbying for “death with indignity”?
The ambiguous word that shows up in almost every chapter of this book is nature/natural. The ambiguity of “natural” cannot be eliminated but many people do not seem to realize how ambiguous the word is. “Nature” has repeatedly shifted in meaning during the more than twenty-five hundred years of its use. Before the seventeenth century the most common meaning of nature referred to what a thing is. Every living being has a nature; that includes the human being, although the humans have a very peculiar kind of nature. Originally, nature applied only to living beings but eventually even nonliving beings were said to have a nature. The term could also mean a summation of those beings so that nature could refer to all of life or to the mother of us all.
The near reversal of “nature” in the seventeenth century made it the opposite of “man,” and the object for man’s conquest. The language of man versus nature was new even though the process of humans’ controlling their physical environment as well as their own bodies has ancient roots. What was different in modern times was the accumulation of knowledge together with the development of instruments of power to such an extent that “man” could have the sense of being master of nature. The success of the scientific/technological revolution was dramatic and widespread. By the twentieth century the effects of the revolution had affected almost every region of the world.
Living beings are those that are born, grow, decline and die. To the extent that humans participate in nature, they too go through that cycle. Modern science and its applications improved both the length and the quality of human life. One intractable problem that remained was death; at least it was a problem for a human being who had drives and ambitions that seemed cruelly mocked by the voice within that kept reminding the individual that it all goes down to the dust again. Some scientists held out hope that the last enemy death could be conquered though probably not soon enough to benefit the present generation. For most people what seemed to be a more realistic strategy was to try to forget their mortality and live as if they would never die.
Just as modern science and technology were seemingly achieving their greatest success, a crisis of confidence suddenly appeared. The horrendous wars of the twentieth century caused some people to wonder whether the human race had lost control of its marvelous inventions. That could happen because the human race itself was not unified and, as a result, one group of people could misuse technological instruments in the service of war and terror instead of peace and harmony. Some people wondered if the human race has some fatal flaw so that it was preparing its own self-destruction?
The violent conflicts within the human race were signs of an even more fundamental war between “man and nature.” The assumption until the second half of the twentieth century was that man was winning one battle after another over nature. In a way it was true that humans were winning battles but the war against nature was another story. C.S. Lewis in a prescient 1948 book, The Abolition of Man, described man’s war against nature this way: “All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us forever.”
The human race is now engaged in reimagining, rethinking, and restating the relation of humans to what embraces them. It is unclear yet whether the human race has enough time, skill, and humility to re-establish a more friendly and sustainable relation with its nonhuman kin. If the whole human race were engaged in such a quest, it very likely could manage this new revolution. Unfortunately, the human race is still wracked with its own internal violence and wars. While groups hassle and kill one another to possess luxuries, the necessities of life, including clean air, potable water, moderate temperatures, and healthful food, are neglected or destroyed.
The chapters in this book may have only a distant relation to these world-shaking problems of politics, economics, and ecology. Nonetheless, every human being who walks the earth has to confront the question of what to make of his or her death. The severe problems of political, economic and environmental systems are driven in part by misplaced attempts to avoid dying. The solutions to these complicated problems will take a multiplicity of skills and widespread cooperation across every kind of boundary. There will be no solutions, however, unless humans can live calmly with their own acknowledged mortality and do not demand of earthly things what earth cannot provide.
Religion is a topic that appears in a number of chapters. Religion was mainly on the side of nature in the war between “man and nature.” Until the second half of the twentieth century it was assumed in the enlightened world that religion was disappearing, being located on the losing side of the war. Then religions seemed to make a comeback although it was more a case of coming out of hiding. What reappeared was often not a religious tradition rich in symbols, philosophy, ritual, and moral stability but instead a vague mystical sense on one side and, on the other side, a rigid fundamentalism that attempts to fight the modern world while being thoroughly a part of it.
The last two chapters of this book are an attempt to look at what religion, especially the Christian religion, might helpfully say and do about death. Taken at face value much of what religion says seems childish or preposterous. Nonetheless, religion is still a powerful force in the world. Even Christianity, which has declined in Europe, has continued to expand in most parts of the world. My premise is that even to reject the Christian view of life and death one first has to understand it, at least to some degree. Much of what was taken literally in the Christian past may deserve to be studied now for its metaphorical meaning. Concepts such as sin and grace, heaven and hell, prayer and sacrament, are worthy of inquiry as possibly embodying some ancient wisdom.
I do not deny that religions are the source of superstition, violence, and misogyny. They can also be a discipline of life, a comfort to the suffering, a source of moral courage, and a hope for a transformed world. No one knows whether ancient religious traditions can shed some of their bellicosity from the past and become factors in the repair of the human race’s relation to its environment and be voices for peace among the nations.
The first step is acknowledging the complexity of religion and the need to understand the peculiar language and logic in religions. Otherwise, we are likely to be afflicted with religious passions that do not have the restraint of long-standing traditions. Human death requires a context that provides some meaning to human life. Religion will probably continue to be the main source for that context. And the basic religious doctrine might be a line from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame: “To think perhaps that it won’t all have been for nothing.”
This essay is a witness to the life of Maria Harris, focused on the last four years of her life, her death, and the immediate aftermath of her death. I was with her during nearly every hour of the four years of her illness and at the moment of her death on February 1, 2005. Immediately following her death many people asked me if I was going to write about her illness and death. I said that I did not think so. However, after nine months of reflection, I have decided to write this memoir. I do so while still having some misgivings. My ambivalence has taken the form of the following debate.
Should this Document Exist: Con
There are two reasons why I have thought that this essay should not be written, one pertaining to her, and one to me. On her side, people have a right to privacy even after they have died. When they have suffered from a long, debilitating sickness, there are details of their life which in written form should not go beyond a hospital chart or a psychiatrist’s notes. If someone wants to share intimate details of their own life with a reading public, that is their right. But it can be exploitative if someone whom they trusted publishes such details.
For myself, I am ambivalent about writing this essay because I am unskilled at this literary genre. I seldom read personal memoirs because I so often find them either boring or sensationalistic. The decision to write about these traumatic years may seem to imply that I have come to some new or profound insight about the experience. The truth is it was mostly confusion from which I cannot claim to have attained any shred of wisdom that requires being shared with the public.
Should this Document Exist: Pro
Whatever my personal misgivings, this narrative is about her not me. Maria had an amazingly wide circle of friends who would appreciate knowing more about the end of her life. I have told some of them some of this story but it seems appropriate to put the whole story in writing for all of her friends. This is an extended letter to Maria’s friends, people who I hope will appreciate the spirit in which it is written. The material here is neither embarrassing nor secret. Obviously, there are details of a person’s sickness that do not need to be in print. But as a whole, the story of how Maria dealt with her sickness and dying has a beauty to it that should be acknowledged. She approached death as she had lived her life with courage, candor and a gentle sense of humor.
On my side, I will simply recount the facts as I remember them without worrying about literary style. I should admit that I am writing this partly for myself, to put on paper the memories that flood my mind. This seems to be the right time to do it when the memories are still fresh but with some distance from the moment of death. After a year, one’s memory functions differently; the remembrances do not disappear but it becomes harder to locate the details properly.
Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking, helped to tip the balance for me. Didion describes the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne on Dec. 30, 2003, and the year that followed. She is a brilliant writer who creates a coherent whole out of numerous precise details and a roaming memory. I identified with many of the details in the book. I am not the skilled writer that she is but I nonetheless got the feeling that I could do something similar on a smaller scale, that is, lay out the facts in one’s memory and do so with a spare style that does not strive for literary effect.
In what follows, I have relied solely on my memory. There are probably errors of fact, especially in citing dates. Perhaps later I will check some sources and make corrections. There is a scarcity of personal names, sometimes because of a conscious choice to protect the privacy of people. But sometimes it is due to my inability to recall many names. The absence of the names of dozens of people who were extraordinarily helpful does not signal a lack of gratitude on my part.
Nearly the entire story takes place either in Montauk, Long Island, or in New York City. In Montauk, a tiny fishing and retirement village at the tip of the island, Maria with her usual outgoingness had developed a group of women friends in the town. They were anxious to do anything they could to help during Maria’s illness. However, for medical reasons it was preferable to spend most of the time in New York’s Greenwich Village where we lived in an apartment owned by New York University.
People outside of New York can find it difficult to believe me when I say that during this time we were overwhelmed with kindness and compassion. From physicians and social workers to cab drivers and subway riders, people were unfailingly kind and helpful. Some of that reaction was undoubtedly due to Maria’s personality which seemed to bring out the best in people. Illness dimmed that light but only death extinguished the sparkle of her personality.
A single moment in Good Samaritan hospital toward the end of her life captures a central characteristic of her life. She was no longer able to do anything for herself and could not carry on a conversation. I would turn on music to which she did not react but which I felt sure that she liked. I would sit in silence next to the bed, not knowing what else to do. On this day I decided at noon time to go downstairs and get some lunch. I did not know if she would understand my words but I always spoke on the assumption that she could comprehend. I told her that I was leaving to go downstairs but I would be back very shortly. She looked up at me and said clear as a bell: “Is there anything I can do for you?” I almost fell over because at that point she could hardly get a word out. As far as I can recall, that was the last complete statement she made. Friends who heard the story agreed that it was a fitting sentiment as a last expression. The essential kindness and goodness of her person shone through until the end, despite the ravages of a terrible disease.
A few details of Maria’s life will be helpful to understanding the last years of illness. Maria had studied music and taught in elementary schools. As a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Brentwood, Long Island, she had studied for sixteen summers to earn her B.A. After that, her academic career moved quickly. After getting a master’s degree at Manhattan College in 1967, she went straight through for her doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1972. While studying for her degree she began work in the diocesan office of Rockville Center. She did superb work with the emerging group of people known as parish directors of religious education. In fact, her DRE Book helped to establish the field and give a name to the role. Very quickly she was in demand across the country, and for the rest of her life she was held in high regard by educators in Catholic parishes.
Her next move broadened the base of those who looked to her for support. In 1975 she became a professor at Andover Newton Theological School, a seminary outside of Boston. I was skeptical, wanting to know how an Irish Catholic girl from Brooklyn could possibly fit in with New England Baptists and Congregationalists. To my surprise – though I should have known better – she immediately became good friends with faculty members and one of the most popular teachers in the school.
After a few years she was appointed to the Howard Chair of Religious Education. At her installation, I was one of several speakers (“representing the Catholic Church”). I reflected on the fact that Maria was the first Roman Catholic faculty member of the school. And it was a school founded in 1807 "to counteract the influence of Unitarians, Atheists and Papists.” I said that perhaps the founders were rolling over in their graves but I suspected that they would recognize that her presence brought to the school only vitality, intelligence, and a profound religious sensibility. That this indeed proved to be the case is evidenced by numerous written testimonies from faculty and former students on the school’s web site in 2005.
Maria left the place where she was respected and loved only because she missed being in New York. She thought that she would like to teach for a semester each year and free lance for the other semester. By this time she was in demand as much from Protestant audiences as Catholic and she liked traveling to places around the United States and beyond. Not knowing if such an arrangement was a realistic possibility, she consulted with Vincent Novak who headed the Fordham program where she had taught as an adjunct before going to Andover Newton. When Father Novak heard what she was looking for, his response was: Why not come to Fordham and do that. She was surprised at being able to arrange the deal so easily but Fordham knew that the luck was on their side.
Maria taught at Fordham for a semester a year until she decided to be self-employed in the mid 90's. She had more than enough to keep her busy. I did not fully appreciate how hard she worked until I went through her papers after she died. Most people who are regularly invited to speak on a few themes have a stock speech to which they give some local coloring. But what I found in Maria’s materials is that she prepared each weekend workshop in meticulous detail, both the content of what she would say and how she would present it. She was a very engaging speaker from a lecture platform and she was even better in a classroom with a small group of students.
Maria always thought of herself as a writer by accident. She never set out to be an author of books. Her first books simply came along with her teaching. I think the book Fashion Me a People in 1989 was a breakthrough for her in her self-image as an author. Craig Dykstra gave her a lot of help in preparing that text and she got a better sense of what an author is. That book is still selling well, being used as a curriculum guide in Protestant seminaries and Catholic programs of religious education.