You get chatting to someone on the train. As you talk on –it’s a long and boring journey- you explore what you have in common – where you live, the jobs you do or did, the seaside where you holidayed as a child. Then you share details about your family. There’s a short pause in the conversation as the train stops at a station. Then, quite suddenly, your new acquaintance says “I was diagnosed with a serious illness a few months back, and haven’t got all that long to live”.
Instantly, everything changes. That other person is now so different. But why?
We separate those who are living from those who are dying. We separate them in our heads – tend to think of them as a different kind of people, to be approached with care because we don’t quite know where we are with them. We separate them physically too. About three-quarters of all deaths in the UK take place in some kind of institution – hospital, care home, or hospice. Dying seems unnatural, a specialist affair that needs doctors and nurses and drugs.
We think of ourselves as either living or dying, but all of us, all the time, are doing both. In reality, I might die before my friend on the train. And it’s so easy to forget that the “dying person” is still living, too, still alive until their last breath. There’s really no difference between us. It’s just that the death-label, which is hung round everyone’s neck at the moment they are born, looks bigger on people who have been told that the end isn’t far off.
A palliative care nurse I used to work with said that when she had a meal, she always ate her favourite things first. “After all, you never know when you might die, and it would be a shame to miss out on the best bits”. Joking about our mortality is a way both of bringing it to mind and also of keeping it at a distance. That’s a healthy approach, it seems to me, and one that underlies the “Kicking the Bucket” idea. Life is for living, after all – humour and enjoyment are essential for happiness. But life is for dying too, and looking our own death in the eye, so far as we can, is healthy as well. It reminds us that life isn’t endless. People who have accepted their own approaching death often live with an intensity, a joy in the present, that’s enviable. So let’s celebrate our mortality!