Saturday, 03 March 2012

Views of Life-Death - Part One

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“You’re driving down a road in the desert, and the engine suddenly stops... no Pep Boys, no Auto Club to help. Whether the road continues is of no consequence. It has ended for you.” — Edwin Schniedman, who died at 90, predicting the nature of his own death.

While death is death, its meaning is a matter of opinion. So too, what your death means to others. So, I offer some views as my contribution to the debates and discourses about death.

I have a stake. I’m old enough (68) to know that I’m nearer the end of my term than the beginning. I’ve outlived the life span of my father and his father by 4 years. I’m pretty clear that I want to die when I choose, if I can, and have taken steps to enable that choice.

My wife and I share this intent. We’ve signed the necessary papers to ensure that the ‘life support’ technologies are turned off, or left off if our state is such that we’re incapable of being consulted. Some things stand in the way of complete confidence that this will occur. The main one being other people, for whom death means something different to what it means to me and who thus may not want to accept my decision. Some of those differences in meaning are catastrophically confronting for me. I think their view is in the terrain of fundamentalist belief, not in that of faith or theory.

The purchase of an assuredly effective means to end my life, with minimum clean-up required by any others is, however, not legally available. I do not want to rely on under-the-counter substances with uncertified contents and unreliable efficacy. I would be happy to engage with a variety of safety requirements, especially ones aimed at ensuring the drug(s) cannot be accessed by anyone other than me. This would require a regime somewhat like the Swiss one portrayed in the Pratchett video ( For a local perspective, see the Victorian branch of Dying with Dignity FAQs (

Some Initial Takes on Life-Death

My views on life-death are held with a sense of wonder at the difficulty of making sense of death and life. The wonder is counter-pointed by the emotional wrenching of the uncertainty of being able to choose my own time and manner of death, as much as that is possible. These are matters where perspective is nearly all in the struggle to give judgment a sustainable foundation. Here are some first takes. They do not pretend to be complete.

I have notions of a ‘good death’. Dying on one’s own kitchen floor or in one’s sleep, as one of my parents did, qualifies for this. Another ‘good death’ would be to be at home, with more or less extended periods of painless decline, with social intimates continuously present.

The Climate for Dying

In some pre-modern societies there was an understanding that one’s time had a limit and making way for others was both necessary and honourable. In our times, the manner of dying attracts moral attentions of every imaginable sort.

Driven by an implicit assumption that we can be protected from all imaginable dangers we have the increasing squeamishness of modern times about any perceived damage to the self, (see some of the submissions to the Victorian Royal Commission based on assumptions that the 2009 bushfire conditions could have been foreseen and comprehensively planned for).

A handmaiden of this aversion to the tribulations of everyday life is the philosophy of ‘nice’. Be nice; don’t trouble others; adjust your thinking and feeling to not confront anyone, even unintentionally.

‘Nice’ has been enhanced by the actions of the damages lawyers and the health marketing fraternities. Lawyers market redress for perceived slights to soul and self, which have been legally or administratively excluded from polite discourse. Defence against bullying grows into defence against anything uncomfortable, like presenting a perception of our workplace worth that is different to our self-perception. This, the very foundation of performance management, is now actionable discomfort.

The health marketers sell hopes of endless life and instant recoveries from the costs of living (obesity, disease, wrinkles, varicosities and lost hair among them). You deserve a lineless face or pot-less gut as much as you deserve a Gucci or a Ferrari)

So, we are not to see death or damage in public. My ex-countrymen - Americans - ban the showing of soldiers who died in defence of the country. The Pratchett video mentioned above, received 800 objections to the fact that it showed, unflinchingly, the last breaths of the patient’s life. In case we might be overwhelmed by reality, our TV stations all solemnly prepare us for possibly disturbing images.

Nor should we even speak of disturbing things. Our police and politicians adopt tortured rhetoric and toneless, robotic delivery and avoid explicit words such as ‘dead’, or ‘body’. Rather we are given ‘the deceased’ who ‘passed on’ (just to somewhere else?) or, more grimly ‘passed away’ (finality is acknowledged) or, more evasively, just ‘passed’ (like a train in the night?). Yet , with the exception of publicly recognised malefactors, all are considered “tragedies” that befell “victims”.

In addition, the boundaries are a bit suspect at both ends. For example, where does IVF fit with naturally occurring conception? Similarly, where does life-support machinery fit with naturally occurring death? Notice that neither of these options is available anywhere to the poor. Some poor in some places do have the chance to sell a part of their biological resources to the (comparatively) rich elsewhere, giving them a surrogate participation in others’ longevity.

Demographics and Politics of Life-Death

The demographics of life-death are this: about 20 % of the electorate ( in Australia are prepared to fight (to the death?) to preserve the right of every conception to come to fruition and to constrain every adult from dying on their own terms. This 20% achieve a larger electoral influence than their numbers warrant because the total field of voters is finely poised between the major parties. Electorally true and ethically incorrect.

The facts of death and births — who, how many, when, but not often how or why — are available daily, with one exception. Unless it’s utterly unavoidable and even then only implicitly (for example, those killed by trains) suicides, both successful and attempted, are seldom reported.

The facts that we begin and end are matters of public record, but we cannot meaningfully speak of death or birth separately from the concomitant partner – we are living-dying beings; we live only for a while and will be not-alive for a longer while. Hence I talk of life-death.

A Program of Explorations

I hope, after building various views of life-death, to arrive at a place where we can achieve more rounded treatments of life-death issues. For example, the idea of living well assumes that there’s a limit to our living, that our efforts to live well are bounded. In that sense we will be finished when we die, even if we are not done!! Or, the meaning of our lives may be achieved by our deaths as symbols of virtue, triumphs over unfairness after our time is up. So our deaths may enlighten the life of others.

So here are some views of life-death to come in this series. The first I have elaborated a bit to give a sense of the material argument. The other six are skeletal images. The order is not assured, nor are the topics guaranteed as stated.

Extreme sports and....the permeability of rights in pursuit of meaning. Some examples:

- Cathy O’Dowd’s Rewind 1999 piece in Sunday Life (24 May ’09, pg. 30; Melbourne) included a report of her passing a dying woman on the north face of Mt Everest. “The general public don’t get this: they think, ‘As long as she’s alive, you can’t leave’. But they live in a world where you can call the police or an ambulance. You can’t do that on Everest.”

- High risk sports, like sky diving, paragliding, bungee jumping and base jumping, have been around since lion-baiting was the entry price for manhood in sub-Saharan hunter-gatherers.

- In Australia we have our own sport: binge drinking, the speciality of the young and younger olds, with death dealing potentials and fulfilments every weekend. These are called “tragedies” when they are merely excesses of youthful risk-taking.

Beginning of life and ...rights to life. The IVF opportunity and challenge.

‘Normal’ end of life. Is death for embracing or defeating?

Martyrs, those who serve and the costs of justifiable violence.

Suicide attempts, successes and failures...irretrievable meaning statements.

Choice — what can we really choose, how much should we choose?

Near deaths — insights from those who passed over and back again.

I’ll be learning as I go and that may change my overall perspective and the features in its view, but I hope you enjoy the journey. Reader suggestions welcomed!

Read 2514 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 August 2012
Torrey Orton

Torrey Orton is an AHPRA registered psychologist with a broad caseload of biopsychosocial disorders in which degrees of danger to patient viability are common; they are in danger from others or themselves.