From the Stages of Grief, In No Particular Order
I have this habit, this funny, ego-based thing that I do, that I have done for many years, of telling certain stories, sometimes jokes, sometimes canned sayings, over and over again, ideally to people who have not heard them before, and yet, embarrassingly, on occasion, to someone who has, someone who either tolerates it once again, or interrupts to inform me of my folly.
I have a pretty good sense of why I do this: I think these things sound clever, thereby making me feel smart and/or interesting, and because I’m a writer of sorts, I like the sound of them, the challenge of reciting them well, making the best word choices, getting the rhythm and flow of them just right, nailing the comic timing if it’s meant to be funny, because, well, it’s so much damned fun and gratifying to make people laugh.
Anyway, since death is pretty much a non-negotiable, the topic has tended to come up in conversation a lot over the years, from the dinner table, to the pub, to the therapy session, and my spiel on death goes something like this:
I’m not afraid of death, meaning the idea that at any moment I might simply cease to be. I fear not the possible absence of any kind of an afterlife, nor do I believe, therefore, in any judgment or punishment after I die. And, if there is some kind of heaven, or nirvana, or, let’s just say an endless Grateful Dead show, then of course I would absolutely enjoy myself to the fullest.
However, I absolutely AM afraid of DYING; a deep-penetrating terror of the manner in which my life may come to an end.
Now, at 55 years of age, I’d amend that to simply add:
I’ve had a great life, and though folks I’d leave behind might be sad to lose me, I could be done tomorrow and feel I used the time I had well.
A number of Eastern spiritual traditions hold that in the non-dualistic state of enlightenment — rather than the object:subject illusion that starts spinning as soon as we’re born because no one’s around to teach us otherwise — everything we experience, all thoughts, sensations, emotions, etc., just are, they simply appear, they are indistinguishable from each other, they are neither good nor bad.
These teachings might even argue that the fabled death-by-old-age — whereby you simply draw and release your last breath, peacefully, after a good 90-100 years, in no observable distress, in a cozy bed, surrounded by your loved ones, etc., — is no different than, oh, let’s say, being tortured to death, ripped apart and eaten alive by lions, or, arriving at the whole point here, slowly wasting away, as I am, from ALS.
NON-MEDICAL: excessively resistant to change.
Acceptance? One of the stages of grief?
Oh, I can understand accepting the inevitability of death. I can even see how, in that time heals all wounds kind of way, eventually accepting the loss of a loved one, maybe even someone gone prematurely, whom, under normal, non-dead circumstances, would have had many more years to live. Yes, that could be possible, because you yourself live on, you rediscover the remaining beauty in the world, and finally you have the chance to regain the capacity to experience the joy of love.
I can understand that.
But does anyone really expect me to ever accept this gradual decay in excruciatingly small increments, the daily, sometimes hourly, stark signals of what’s to come: struggles to bathe and dress, the increasingly illegible handwriting, the deep fatigue and relentless muscle twitching that intensifies after climbing that one story of stairs more than a few times in a day, these relentless harbingers of the wheelchair, in-home care, the feeding tube, the breathing tube, and then, and only then, because acceptance of death itself was the never the problem, the tortuous progression ends, and you become the grateful dead?
Intellectually, I can comprehend, in Buddhist fashion, how sclerotic non-acceptance actually exacerbates suffering: the story grows, becomes increasingly melodramatic, becomes a fortress of victimhood.
It might be the ultimate catch-22, if it weren’t actually the choice-free nature of reality.