What is dying like?

For a few months now I have been wondering what does it feel like to be dying?  We can describe our own hunger, joy, pain, fear, excitement, fatigue, so why shouldn’t we also be able to describe our own dying?

I now realize that this is an aggressive maybe even an impertinent question.  People turn away when I tell them I’m looking to answer it. It’s not that dying is a provocative subject like Gaza or tipping or beggars or eating animals where it’s easy to engage people.  No, it’s that dying is a  profoundly disturbing, taboo subject in our culture and not one that easily invites exploration or conversation.As I did the research for this program I wondered if the experience of dying might be beyond language although Leo Tolstoy gave lie to that idea in his brilliant short story “The Death of Ivan Illyich,” which he completed in 1886.   Poor Ivan Illyich!  How much less wretched his dying would have been had he had access to a 21st century hospice program!

Although I don’t know if Tolstoy based his harrowing account of dying on observation or intuition or books, in my search I turned to three women, each of whom have spent considerable parts of their professional lives with dying people.I am grateful to Sarah ZimmermanNancy Gray and Vicky Cortese, who live and work in eastern Long Island as I do, for the generosity with which they gave me their time and shared their experiences and thoughts. Most of what we know about how dying feels is what we have inferred from the behavior of dying people: we can observe and describe the changes we witness in the dying person but can only guess whether that’s also what it feels like. Please tune to the podcast in which you will hear more about them and where you can listen to each of them as they help me answer my question: what is dying like?

Here is a summary of the insights and observations you will hear:  The enormity of it for some, the denial of it for others;  the subtle move to the interior, the beginning of withdrawal from the world;  the unpredictability of individual differences; dying as a process of divestment, which brings with it a distillation or purification.  The potential for misunderstanding what dying people are communicating because they may express themselves an obscure or unexpected way, sometimes in symbols or dreams or what we might describe as visitations, visions or hallucinations.  We hear about dying people who seem to have control over the timing or circumstances of their death–waiting for something or somebody or simply turning away to die;  the mysterious way in which a person dies at the very moment that family members have briefly left the bedside or the nurse has left the room.

Looking back on what I’ve learned, I see that Sarah, Nancy and Vicky were each reluctant at times to generalize when I pressed them for conclusive answers.  I realize now that much of their knowledge is intuitive, coming as it does from working with people on an individual, one-on-one level. They also share a willingness to acknowledge the mysterious,  to be comfortable with the unknown and with perhaps never knowing the answers.

Perhaps, I told myself more than once, it’s presumptive and intrusive to ask the question,  to enquire any more closely into it than I did. Maybe what it’s like to be dying is a question that can’t be answered and maybe that’s the answer.

Suggested reading:

Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, The Revised edition: New Spiritual Classic from One of the Foremost Interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism  by Sogyal Rinpoche
Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying (Paperback) by Maggie Callanan (Author), Patricia Kelley 
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
April 1, 2010
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