A Student of Death



 

 “I want to celebrate my belief that living well and dying well are one and the same thing.  I’m not talking about adjusting deathbed pillows so that dying people can strike heroic poses for the edification of onlookers.  I’m talking about achieving a good death in the context of real dying – with all its unpredictability, disfigurement, pain, and sorrow.”

 

 

My name is Richard.  I’m the founder of  a nonprofit organization with an outreach to terminally ill, seriously ill, elder, and dying people.  I’m also the author of a book about death and dying.  Here are some thoughts about my personal journey.

 

 

Although I’ve been working in this field for 35 years, I should probably say from the onset that this is not something I chose to do.  It was more like this work chose me.  Let me explain.

 

 

I finished my doctorate in San Francisco in 1981.  That same year a mysterious thing began to happen.  Gay men all across the country began to sicken and die from an unknown disease.  Was this a diabolic plot of some kind?  Perhaps it was divine retribution.  Or was this simply a very serious medical emergency?  The AIDS crisis had begun in earnest.

 

 

Because of my background in religion and psychology, friends turned to me for guidance, but I’m afraid that I had nothing to offer them.  Nothing, in all my years of schooling, had prepared me for what was happening to the people I loved.  I was petrified.  All my greatest fears were being realized.  What did it all mean?  It was a desperate time and I was powerless.  I could do nothing but sit and watch the nightmare unfold.

 

 

As it turned out, sitting and watching was the best thing I could have done, because as fate would have it, this time I was to be the student, not the teacher.  In time, I became less anxious.  The monstrous thing I feared for so long was being transformed.  I was able to sit with death and not be afraid.  Death was no longer the enemy, she had become what St. Francis called her, ‘sister death.’

 

 

Years of going from one death scene to another with hardly a break in between was exhausting but also rewarding.  I began to see patterns develop.  Despite the uniqueness of each death, I noticed there were two things all these deaths had in common.  They were difficult and lonely affairs.

 

 

Difficult because in this culture we have a hard time recognizing when things are over, especially the things we enjoy – summer vacation, relationships, our youth and even life itself.  This is a problem because being unable to acknowledge the end of something makes saying goodbye and thank you impossible.

 

 

And they were also lonely affairs, because the wisdom people come as they approached the end of their life often died with them.  There simply wasn’t a medium for collecting this abundant wisdom and thus it was frequently lost.

 

 

Most people face their mortality in a vacuum of information and support.  It is as if each of will have to learn to die from scratch, as if no one had died before us.

 

 

I figured there had to be a better way to deal with this fundamental fact of life.  That’s why I’m here.  I want to take a fresh look at my mortality, and do so in an interactive and positive way.  I want to celebrate my belief that living well and dying well are one and the same thing.  I’m not talking about adjusting deathbed pillows so that the dying people can strike heroic poses for the edification of onlookers.  I’m talking about achieving a good death in the context of real dying – with all its unpredictability, disfigurement, pain, and sorrow.

 

 

I look forward to other opportunities to address the topic of death and dying in the weeks to come.  Thank you for this opportunity to join you.

 



Comments


info on my book...

thanks for your comment, Ali. you can find more information about my book, The Amateur's Guide To Death And Dying here: http://theamateursguide.com/about/about-the-book/

you can also reach me, via email, through that site. :)


Posted by Richard Wagner

Thanks for your post. I resonate with all you say and would like to read your book. Would you give the details please?
Ali


Posted by Ali MacArthur


Thanks for your post. I resonate with all you say and would like to read your book. Would you give the details please?
Ali


Posted by Ali MacArthur


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