Once upon a distant yesterday, your humble correspondent served as the sole staffer for the biomedical ethics committee of a large, tertiary-care hospital. For four fascinating years, I was the person who kept the minutes, convened the consultation subcommittees and joined physicians, nurses and families navigate the difficult waters attendant to the last days of a patient’s life.
Some of the stories are heartbreaking; others are outrageous. But no matter the specifics of any particuluar case, the overall trend was unambiguous: People just aren’t prepared to deal with the ethical challenges at the twilight of human life.
Sometimes, families simply needed time to process the inevitable; they’d start by demanding heroic interventions to give Jesus time to give the family a miracle. Only the loving counsel of the chaplains made much difference, bringing a degree of peace in a time of anguish. Other times, patients who believed themselves immortal never bothered to attend to things like powers of attorney, so the hospital had to navigate competing demands among people who had a stake in the patient’s health but no clear authority to make decisions.
Human nature abhors death. We seek to delay it as long as possible, and steadfastly refuse to feel the icy grip of Death stroking the backs of our necks. This denial leads us to avoid preparation. We don’t file powers of attorney; we don’t draft living wills; we don’t say the things we need to say when we have the chance to say it.
And in the end, the wailing spreads from bed to bedside to hospital corridor.
My friends, consider. You may be a successful entrepreneur, or an aspiring writer, or a promising young journalist. You may or may not have a family, but you surely have friends. Take the time to get your end-of-life affairs in order so that when tragedy strikes, your passing can be dignified. Don’t bequeath an emotional, financial and legal mess to your loved ones.
Be ready. For one day, the close encounter with Death will end to Death’s advantage.