All this month of November, I've been reflecting on the life lessons that caregiving teaches us. I've talked about gratitude, kindness, patience, wisdom and resilience. I even wrote about how we learn to see in two ways, simultaneously.
But now that the end of November is nigh, my last lesson of caregiving is our understanding of mortality. We live in a society that denies death. We grieve silently and privately. We try to remain dry-eyed in the name of dignity when it is right and proper to weep. And magazines are full of messages proclaiming the triumph of youth over aging and independence over frailty.
At home, looking after people we love, we learn a different way of looking at life, suffering and death. Many of us do not live on farms, but we are slowly coaxed into understanding that death is a natural part of life. A friend of ours lives in a rural part of the UK. Recently, she told me about the death of a friend and neighbour who passed away from cancer. "Everyone in our valley gave our friend the most beautiful send-off. They know how to deal with death around here. They don't hide it. Everyone worked to spruce up the church, the grounds, the hedgerows. Women came and went with food for the family. Granddaughters sang and play around her casket which was in the living room all week. Grown sons dug the grave. Now that was really something to witness. Hundreds of people came to the funeral. It was a most amazing send-off." Certainly, most of us won't experience funerals this way, but reading about this country funeral, we know that our contemporary rituals have lost something important in the way we say goodbye to those we love most in the world.
Atul Gawande's deeply wise and moving book BEING MORTAL is a guide to being happy in life by looking mortality straight in the eye. Like most of life's essential truths, accepting death as an essential ingredient to happiness is as paradoxical as 'the only certainty is uncertainty'. Members of the general public may not think about suffering, dependency or death very often. But caregivers sure do. We think about these big issues every day. We ponder them as we mourn the losses in our aging parents or in our spouses with critical illness. We reflect on death and dying in the ICU with our children whose disabilities sometimes cause life-threatening crises. And we are forced to co-habit with grief throughout caregiving, but especially after someone we've cared for finally dies.
Recently, I read a new book on this theme - Love Your Life to Death: How to Plan and Prepare for End of Life so You Can Live Fully Now by Yvonne Heath. Yvonne is a veteran nurse whose stories of professional and personal caregiving serve to teach, empower and reassure us so that we can plan a good death with the love and support of family. This highly readable and practical guide to accepting mortality is a little like attending a private session with a death and dying coach. Yvonne is so knowledgeable, supportive and non-judgemental that everyone will benefit from her wisdom. Just as births are different and unique to the person, so are deaths. Yvonne knows that every family needs to plan differently.
In closing National Caregivers Month, I would say this: if there's a wise man at the top of the mountain who knows the meaning of life, he is a caregiver. And he would say that accepting death is part of that meaning.