Thursday, November 5, 2015

What's the Best Way to Die?

[ed. See also: One in a million.]

After a particularly gruesome news story — ISIS beheadings, a multicar pileup, a family burnt in their beds during a house fire — I usually get to wondering whether that particular tragic end would be the worst way to go. The surprise, the pain, the fear of impending darkness.

But lately, I’ve been thinking that it’s the opposite question that begs to be asked: what’s the best way to die? Given hypothetical, anything-goes permission to choose from a creepy, unlimited vending machine of endings, what would you select?

If it helps, put yourself in that mindset that comes after a few glasses of wine with friends — your pal asks something dreamy, like where in the whole world you’d love to travel, or, if you could sleep with any celebrity, who would it be? Except this answer is even more personal.

There are lots of ways to look at the query. Would I want to know when I’m going to die, or be taken by surprise? (I mean, as surprising as such an inevitable event can be.) Would I want to be cognizant, so I can really experience dying as a process? Or might it be better to drowse my way through it?

Many surveys suggest that about three-quarters of Americans want to die at home, though the reality is that most Americans, upwards of 68 percent, will die in a hospital or other medicalized environment. Many also say they want to die in bed, but consider what that actually means: just lying there while your heart ticks away, your lungs heave to a stop. Lying around for too long also gets rather uncomfortable — as anyone who’s spent a lazy weekend in bed can tell you — and this raises a further question: should we expect comfort as we exit this life?

Sometimes I think getting sniped while walking down the street is the best way to go. Short, sweet, surprising; no worries, no time for pain. Sure, it’d be traumatic as hell for the people nearby, but who knows — your death might spark a social movement, a yearlong news story that launches media, legal, and criminal justice careers. What a death! It might mean something. Does that matter to you — that your death helps or otherwise changes other people’s lives? If there’s not a point to your death, you might wonder, was there a point to your life?

These are heavy questions — ahem, vital, ones — that don’t seem to come up very often.

I got curious about how other people would answer this question, so I started asking colleagues and friends for their ideal death scenarios (yes, I’m a blast at parties). I heard a wide variety of answers. Skydiving while high on heroin for the second time (because you want to have fun the first time, according to a colleague). Drowning, because he’d heard it was fairly peaceful once the panic clears. Storming a castle and felling enemies with a sword to save a woman, who he then has appreciative sex with, just as he’s taking his dying breaths. (That poor gal!) An ex-boyfriend of mine used to say that the first time he lost bowel control, he’d drive to the Grand Canyon and jump off.

My own non-serious answer is to be tickled to death, sheerly for the punniness of it.

Anecdotally, young men were more fancy-free about their answers, while the older folks and women I spoke with gave more measured answers or sat quietly. Wait, what did you ask? I’d repeat the question. A pause. Hmm.

One old standby came up quite a lot: dying of old age in my bed, surrounded by family. The hospital nurses I asked had a twist on that trope: in bed, surrounded by family, and dying of kidney failure. Among nurses, there was consensus that this is the best way to go if you’re near death and in intensive care — you just fade out and pass, one ICU nurse told me. In the medical community, there’s debate about how calm death by kidney failure actually is, but really, who can you ask?

These answers are all interesting, but my nurse friend got me wondering about people who deal with death on the regular — what do they think about the best death? Do they think about it? Surely hospice workers, physicians, oncologists, “right-to-die” advocates, cancer-cell biologists, bioethicists, and the like have a special view on dying. What might their more-informed criteria be for my “best death” query?

I started with a concept that I think most can agree with — an ideal death should be painless.

Turns out, a painless death is a pretty American way to think about dying.

by Robyn K. Coggins, Wilson Quarterly | Read more:
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