Death Is The Graduation Event Of Everyone's Life

Death Is The Graduation Event Of Everyone's Life

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Fewer people will die in the last quarter of the last year of this millennium than they did in the same quarter of previous years.

This is a forecast by some epidemiologists. Not because we have found a cure for cancer, heart disease, or other deadly diseases, but because of a phenomenon called, "postponement of death."

You see, the year 2000 is almost here. People want to see what it's like to move into a new millennium. After all, the event comes only once in a thousand years. Fewer people will die in this quarter because, consciously or unconsciously, they will postpone their death to witness the advent of the year 2000.

Is such a thing possible? Can we really postpone our death? Wouldn't it be nice that Mr. Death (or Mrs. Death) knocks on John's door and John says, "Not today, I have things to do!"

Dr. Carl Hammerschlag, a Yale University psychiatrist, relates a story of a patient, "Vincent," a Native American priest who developed a malignant tumor in his stomach. When surgeons opened him up they found that the cancer was everywhere and nothing could be done to save him. Hammerschlag broke the news to his patient that the hospital doctors couldn't do anything to treat his cancer. He urged Vincent to inform his people right away because he was about to die.

Vincent smiled and asked him how far away Aug. 4 was. Hammerschlag was stunned that instead of denying the news about his death or demanding some action from doctors, he was smiling and inquiring about the date of an important festival of his tribe. The festival was two months away. The doctors were certain of his immediate death, but Vincent stayed in the hospital on one condition; that someone would take him home on Aug 4 so he could personally preside over the village ceremonies.

On Aug. 4, Vincent was alive and was transported to his village. There, his wife, children, relatives, and friends spoke to him privately. The village elders came in and blessed him with ceremonial objects. At the end of the ceremony, he touched each one of them, waved farewell and returned to the hospital.

Back in the hospital bed that evening, Vincent announced that he was ready to die. Hammerschlag, to take his mind off such a "morbid" track, reminded him how good a day he had and told him that he would see him in the morning. Vincent said, "No, I am going to die." Next morning, when the doctor came to visit, Vincent's bed was empty. Vincent had died during the night.

Hammerschlag says he thought he knew when people were going to live and die, but this guy knew more about his death and life than any of his doctors did. Vincent handled his death with calm dignity, and certainty.

"Certainty," that last word in the above statement, is the key to the question of how an individual would accept the news of his or her death. If we view something as certain, we prepare for it. We know that the deadline for income tax is mid-April, so we start preparing for it about the same time every year, or at least some of us do. But how can we feel certain of death and prepare for it when we don't want to think about it, hear or talk about it?

Death in Western society is viewed as a failure. Everyone who is related to the dying person experiences of a sense of failure. The one who is dying feels a failure for having the disease, letting the family down, or not taking good care of himself. The doctors feel a failure because they can't save their patients' lives. Families feel a failure because in spite of their love and caring, they can't undo death.

Because of such feelings of failure, guilt, embarrassment, and sometimes even shame, death becomes an off-limits subject. We are so afraid of suicide and death that if anyone mentions the word in his own reference, we view it as morbid thinking. Death is a taboo subject. The insurance industry realized a long time ago that nobody is going to buy "death insurance," therefore, to make it a more palatable subject, they termed it "life insurance."

We try our best to avoid any thoughts, words or deeds related to death as if healthy living might be possible by taking the word "death" out of the dictionary. Therefore, when people are near death or death-like circumstances, they don't know what to do. They find themselves most unprepared because they never developed the skills to deal with death as a matter-of-fact, inevitable, and unavoidable reality of life.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once said that death is the final stage of growth. Notice the word is "growth," not "failure" or "defeat." A normal, mature and non-accidental death is really the graduation event of this college of life.

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Copyright 2003, Mind Publications 
Posted July 2003


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