Death: we fear it, we don’t even talk about it. When somebody dies, if we were close to them, we are shocked. If we were not, we don’t know what to say to those who were. Is there a disconnect between what death really is, and what we think about it?
As doctors, we are faced with the reality of death far too many times. We are taught in medical school not to attach ourselves to the dying patient who looks at us with hope in his eyes, but what happens in reality is quite different. The death of a patient is many times equally hard on his doctor as it is to his family. At these times, all we can do is make sure the person is comfortable in his or her last days – quality of life, they call it. Somehow, we find ourselves wishing there was more we could do to help. A close friend gifted me a book by Atul Gawande, ‘Being Mortal’, in which he asks if perhaps we have been taught about it all wrong? Or, at many times, not been taught to deal with death and dying at all?
The movie Patch Adams was one of the things that inspired me to become a doctor. In the movie, when Patch is pulled up at a hearing because he was practicing as a doctor without a license, and asked, “What if one of your patients had died?”, he says, “What’s wrong with death, sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity and decency, and God forbid, maybe even humour? Death is not the enemy, gentlemen. If we’re going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all: indifference.” (the relevant part start at 2:14 in the video:)
There are many people who have thought deeply on the subject and given us their opinions. I liked how one of these philosophers put it forward:
“Now, there really isn’t anything radically wrong with bring sick or with dying. Who said you’re supposed to survive?”, says Alan Watts, British-born philosopher, “If our death could be indefinitely postponed, we would not actually go on postponing it indefinitely. Because, after a certain point, we would realise that that isn’t the way in which we wanted to survive. Why else would we have children? Because, children arrange for us to survive in another way, by, as it were, passing on a torch, so that you don’t have to carry it all the time…”
This reminds me of Shri Vethathiri Maharishi’s explanation of Karma and rebirth. Vethathiri Maharishi was one of those spiritual leaders who were practical, scientific and philosophical at the same time – a rare combination. Karma is simply the imprint that everything you do leaves behind on you. When you were born, you were born with a set of imprints inherited from your parents and all your ancestors – your instincts and subconscious reactions. Everything you’ve thought, said or done throughout your life until this moment is recorded in your subconscious mind. All of those are going to have a proportionate reaction in the future. All of these imprints together is called Karma.
Vethathiri Maharishi says, you are the rebirth of your parents. Think about it – the genes you have today and the genes you had when you were born are not exactly the same. There are many that have been turned on or off by your life until today. When you have children, the imprints you are passing on to your children are a combination of what you received from your parents, plus the changes you’ve made to it yourself.
“Children arrange for us to survive in another way, by, as it were, passing on a torch, so that you don’t have to carry it all the time…It’s a far more amusing arrangement for Nature to continue the process of life with different individuals than it is with the same individual…”, Watts says.
Isn’t this a beautiful way of looking at it? The moment you look at it this way, death is no longer something bad that happens to you. It’s simply one small part of a much bigger process – a beautiful part. 🙂