Living and Leaving 2: Happy Endings
I am a devotee, a fan and supporter of life. I’m not Albert Schweitzer, I kill mosquitoes, but I have a great respect for practically all living things. That said, I am prepared to end my life. In fact, I’m making plans.
Please don’t misunderstand. I intend to squeeze the juice out of life – until I’m ready and want to leave. And hopefully, I will live longer than expected, and die peacefully. Some people do. But one thing’s for sure: sooner or later I’m going to die. Aren’t you?
As a therapist and workshop leader, I’ve spent the last forty years helping people make the most of living. But until I came close to wanting to die, I never helped people make the most of leaving.
Really! We only get to die once a lifetime, so why not make the most of it?
My epiphany came recently when a message from the muse, or the universe, came to me while lying in a hospital bed. “You’ve come to earth for a purpose, you’ve served your purpose, now you can relax and go home. You do not have to endure intolerable pain and suffering. You can go home when you choose.”
It’s been four months since leaving the hospital and I am doing my best to regain my strength and the ability to walk. However, just knowing that I can leave if the pain and suffering become unbearable is like having a magic wand I can wave whenever I choose.
But the real magic is that I have found a new purpose: I am determined to help people stop denying death and embrace it. It is inevitable. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tragic. It can be a conscious choice. I am inspired to awaken people to the possibility of facing “leaving” with curiosity in place of fear, anticipation instead of dread, creativity and strength instead of anxiety. And, if necessary, accept that we may need a little help to go.
I’m determined to help break the taboo that keeps so many people from even talking about leaving. My mission is to encourage even young people to embrace the concept with a bit of humor to help ease the way to acceptance. The earlier we begin the process of acknowledgement, the better our chances for a full and satisfactory life. I believe it’s not really possible to live fully if we’re afraid to die.
J. Martin Kohe, American psychologist said, “The greatest power a person possesses is the power to choose.” I want people to know that we all have a choice: we can leave our bodies when we want to. When pain and suffering is overwhelming, when the quality of life is such that we no longer want to be here, we can choose to have help to leave.
For many years I’ve been encouraging students to “trust the wisdom of their bodies” and now I finally realize just how necessary that teaching is. Until we are close to leaving, we don’t really understand how important it is to trust that our bodies will know when enough is enough.
Right now I am more deeply appreciative of life than ever before. Everything is more beautiful because I’m consistently more awake and present. I find myself thrilled with a good bowl of pasta and captivated at the sight of a mama duck sitting on her eggs as I gaze through our mid-town window. I don’t take anything for granted, and although I’ve always treasured my loved ones, I have never been this aware of the blessing of friends.
I’m thoroughly enjoying life while playing with ideas for a happy ending.
When my friend Erika was dying, she checked into a hospice here in Amsterdam and immediately requested an electric piano be brought into her room. She planned to learn some new pieces. She also had friends bring in paints and canvases and began painting – something she’d always wanted to try. She meticulously planned her funeral, painted a picture for the cover of the program, and about a week before she died made a video of her newly learned piano pieces to be played at the ceremony. During the taping while singing with her Portuguese husband, her eyes twinkling and her face radiantly beautiful, she looked into the camera and said, “I have never been this happy.”
Yes, with time to plan, good drugs to manage pain, and a loved one at her side, there was no need for assisted “leaving.”
Sir Terrance Pratchett (Terry) brilliant British author diagnosed recently with Alzheimer’s produced a documentary called Choosing to Die. It includes interviews with people planning to have help to die. Among those interviews is a conversation with the widow of Hugo Claus, a well-known Belgian author. In the heartwarming interview Mrs. Claus describes how on the eve of her husband’s “leaving” she brought a bottle of champagne and a cigarette to the hospital room (although neither were allowed). She lay down beside him and began to sing. He began to sing along with her. “It was warm and tender and I’ll never forget that moment.” Hugo Claus died in his wife’s arms, SINGING.
I just want to leave you with this thought: we don’t have to wait until we’re old and infirm to plan our departure. We can start early – take all we know and all we can discover about the possibility of leaving with dignity and grace – and plan a happy ending.