Saturday, November 20, 2021

Speaking of dying


In my culture, we seek reassurance that the death of someone known to us was peaceful. But dying is hardly ever peaceful, and for good reason. What we actually need is a new vocabulary.

Dying is rarely peaceful, because dying is a labour-work.

Almost all of us have participated in labour once before, for birth is a collaborative (if not equal) effort between a mother and baby; whenever either one is unable to play their part, that is when we speak of complications. And though we have no conscious memory of our birth, the body knows what the body knows. Many, though by no means all, women experience subsequent labours, but giving birth to someone else is a different, albeit related, work. Dying is our second labour to be birthed: once, before, from our mother’s womb into this world; now, from the womb of this world into the world beyond. This is true—our bodies know it to be so—whether we believe that the world beyond shares a high degree of continuity with this one, or believe that, from the perspective of this world, what lies beyond is oblivion. This is true, even if we did not labour our own birth, and do not have that memory to draw on. It is also the case that some are ‘ripped untimely’ from either womb, whether a C-section birth or a sudden and violent death.

Like childbirth, the labour of dying can take days; comes with laboured (not a pun) breathing; is, if we are fortunate, attended, by midwives who watch over us, for labour-work is not only work but work at our most vulnerable. We would not usually ask, of a new mother, “Was the birth peaceful?” though I note the wishful thinking of Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. But we might say, “Mother and baby did really well, and both are resting now” or, “It was a difficult birth, but she is resting now.” What we, who anxiously wait for news, are really asking is, is the news good?

It is not so much a peaceful death we need as rest once our labour is done. And to make peace with the knowledge that this second birth awaits us all. And, perhaps most of all, to see dying as the culmination of living, not its diminishing. Then we can rightly say, let us release the breath we have been holding in, and give thanks. This is not to deny grief, and the importance of grief-work. On the contrary, it may lift the anxiety that can complicate this labour of love of those who remain.


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