Is it really necessary to make dying that complicated?

By Martin Bayne

Recently, I had an insight that has changed the way I think, feel, and respond to nearly every component of long-term care. 

It all began during a conversation I had five days ago with a fellow resident we’ll call ‘RF’, a woman in her mid-90s who was having significant assisted living transition issues — loneliness, helplessness, and despair had become her 24/7 companions. At some point in the conversation, she folded her hands in her lap, looked me in the eye and said, “I appreciate your kindness, but all I really want to do is die.” 

In previous conversations with others, when I’d reached this juncture, it was as if a black hole event horizon had been breached – and deep within the canyons of my mind, klaxons sounded and a loud voice repeated the warning:  

“DANGER – Possible Suicide Risk. Proceed with caution. Notify the proper medical authorities.” 

But the shouting never materialized. 

Not five days ago. Not yesterday. Not today. 

Why? I haven’t a clue. All I know is my inner voice has changed. Yes, there’s still a voice. There’s still plenty of ‘back-chatter’, a vast array of demons still occupy my cranial space, but it’s a kinder cranial space – not as much yelling and screaming, and the default communication’s bridge, the primary interface to my fellow human being, simpler, yet metamorphic. It whispers eight words that change lives forever: 

Living brings delicious dangers,

dying is completely safe.

Later that evening, just before falling asleep, I stumbled onto the following passage in a book I hadn’t picked up for a year: 

Nothing real can be threatened

Nothing unreal exists

Herein lies the Peace of God

The outcomes from the Inner Voice are already clear. When I walk by a resident sitting in her wheelchair in the lobby; sitting in exactly the same spot she sits all day, every day, I’m less likely to judge her, to form an opinion that says: Something is wrong with this woman. She’s not engaged. She’s not living her life to the fullest. She might as well be dead.   

Well, maybe she IS dying. And perhaps, just perhaps what we perceive as resignation and despair is nothing more than a desire to listen to that still, small voice within – a need to surrender everything tangible and intangible in preparation for the journey home. 

In short, is it really necessary to make dying that complicated? We trust nature and the Eternal to bring us into this life, is it that incongruous to believe they can safely guide us out? 

Yes, I know. What about the resident who is mentally ill? How do we determine if the behavior we witness with our resident is catatonic or cathartic? 

How will we know? 

We will ask her.