Reading Notebook #19: Death As Liberation

From “Letting Go” by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker (August 2, 2010):

Almost all these patients had known, for some time, that they had a terminal condition. Yet they—along with their doctors—were unprepared for the final stage. … Surveys of patients with terminal illness find that their top priorities include, in addition to avoiding suffering, being with family, having the touch of others, being mentally aware, and not becoming a burden to others. Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars.

And  … here’s a transcription from multiple lectures that Alan Watts gave on death. (Do a search on YouTube for “Alan Watts” + “death” for snippets):

We live in a culture where it has been rubbed into us that to die is a terrible thing. And that is a tremendous disease from which our culture suffers, and we notice it firstly in the way in which death is swept under the carpet.

This is one of the major problems in hospitals—when a family conspires with the doctor to keep from grandmother the knowledge that she is dying. Grandmother suspects that she is dying but probably doesn’t really want to know for sure and her family talk with her in such a way as to say, “Well you’re probably be getting alright in a few weeks” — because they have this funny feeling that it’s important to build up courage and hope. And so they become liars and the mutual mistrust develops. … So the person is left to die alone, suddenly, unprepared, and doped up to the point where death hardly happens. And there is no derivation from it of the peculiar spiritual experience that can come with death.

… We don’t know what to do with a dying person. … Is death sickness? Or is it a healthy, natural event like being born? … Death isn’t terrible. It’s just going to be the end of you, as a system of memories. And so you’ve got a great chance before it happens to let go of everything. … And if you have anything to say that you’re hanging onto, say it. …

The moment comes when this thing called death has to be taken not as some ghastly accident … The main thing is the attitude. Death is as positive as birth, and should be a matter for rejoicing because death is the symbol of the liberation. …

What’s it like to go to sleep and never, never wake up? … It’s not going to be like being in the darkness forever. It’s going to be like as if you never had existed all. Not only you, but everything else as well.

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Posted in Life Philosophy, Reading.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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