Although I’ve always said I plan to live forever (or die trying), I’m slowly accepting that I’m not immortal. That makes me think about how I’d like to die.
Here’s my dream death: Live a long time, longer than the actuarial tables estimate, in reasonably good health, with few serious health crises along the way. Remain able to reason and do many of the things I want to do. Continue to have friends around. Reach a point where I’m getting more frail, so that both I and my friends and family know that the end is coming. Die quickly, preferably suddenly of something that does not throw me into a hospital and futile attempts to keep me alive.
My grandmother (my father’s mother) died like that, a heart attack in her sleep at the age of 91, after she had become more frail, but some years after she’d had any major health issues. We knew she was becoming frail, but while I felt the loss and still miss her (and it’s been over thirty years now), I welcomed that quick end of life.
However, I know someone else who died of that kind of heart attack who was not quite 60 and not in any way frail, and I still feel the unfairness of it. He should have had treatment and lived much longer.
Those four things are key for me: living longer than expected; increased frailty, so that death is not a surprise to you or those who love you; continued competence and ability to enjoy life despite the frailty, up to the end; and a quick death.
And none of them is a given. You can do the things to keep yourself healthy, but that doesn’t guarantee that something bad won’t sneak up on you. Wealth can buy you the best health care, but even that doesn’t always keep people alive. Dementia is a real thing and we do not know how to prevent it. And your heart may be strong enough to keep you going even as some other disease is ravaging your body.
There are things you can do, of which I suspect the most important is making connections with other people so that you will have friends to help you when you need care. Not all of us have family to take care of us and even those who do need more connections than that.
And you can plan: Deal with your money. Make sure someone will take care of the things that matter, whether it’s work or objects or other people. Make it easy for whoever might have to make the hard decisions at the end to know what you want, whether it’s a do not resuscitate order or the kind of burial. None of that’s easy, particularly dealing with money, which I’d rather not do. But important.
Most deaths that I am familiar with were not as good as my grandmother’s, making me fear that hers was an exception when I’d like it to be the rule.
I knew in my gut that my mother was dying months before she died, but I was in denial about it. I fear she may have been in denial, too. She did live longer than her time, especially given her smoking, but she spent years fading away from emphysema.
My father’s body outlived his mind, so that he was gone before he was gone. His death came as a relief, but that’s no way to feel about loss. I miss them both very much.
If you have an illness that is likely to kill you slowly, I guess the best thing is to make some peace or other pact with death. I hope that I will do that, if I have to. But I hope I don’t have to.
I hope to go like my grandmother, keep my marbles, start to fade so that death is not a surprise to me or anyone else, and then die quickly. It seems like very little to ask for even as it seems oh, so rare.