We tend to think of death as the failure of medicine. Today, a loved one’s death tends to be sterile and clinical, and too often set in the grim intensity of the ICU. But increasing evidence shows benefits to dying at home.
In “Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul,” Stephen Jenkinson said that we live in a death-phobic culture. Doctors and psychiatrists and family members hesitate to use the word “dying.” Cancer patients feel duty-bound to address their illness in terms of “hope” and “battle” with unquenchable optimism.
“Many people are fearful that if they speak of dying in a clear way ‘at the wrong time’ they will disarm dying people at the very time they are supposed to be fighting. I’ve seen many times that family members and health care workers secretly believe that to speak of dying is to approve of dying, that mutes most of us when dying is in the room,” wrote Jenkinson.(5)
During my own father’s final illness, when he was discharged from the hospital and enrolled in hospice, I, myself, unable to verbalize the word death, told him only, “It’s serious, Dad.” He died within two weeks.
Even writing that last line, “he died within two weeks,” feels mawkish and overly personal, despite the fact all fathers die, or, to use fewer qualifiers— we all die.
The notion of dying as remote and other, as a failure of institutions or of the patient to fight hard enough, seems to have arisen relatively recently. With 19th century industrialization and the professionalization of medicine, a “good death” became defined by whether doctors and clergy were present.(3)
Lawrence Rosen, in his review of the book “A Social History of Dying,” wrote, “In an age of ever-increasing attempts to control nature, dying was transformed from a ‘wild’ thing into something that had to be, and for the first time could be, ‘tamed’ by those who knew how to do so.”(3)
But that taming of death, removing it from the home sphere and putting it into the medical world, has resulted in a culture of dying that makes death seem less a natural end and more like dystopic science fiction.