Death trails our lives as surely as night follows day, but many of us still feel shocked when the news comes that we or a loved one has a life-ending ailment.
The removal of death and dying from our homes and families is eroding our affinity and kinship to events that have been seminal to culture since the dawn of humanity.
Many of us are living long enough to become interested in adding vitality, meaning and life to our years rather than merely adding more years to life.
Our desire to live longer, even at the end of life, has driven a multitude of ways of averting death. Yet people who accept their prognosis and who choose palliative care are happier and live longer than those who pursue life-extending therapies.
Some diseases have a better prognosis than others but when the odds of survival are slim, health professionals can feel pressured to offer further treatments despite their low chances of success.
Patients who receive new treatments in clinical trials do little better than those on existing therapies.
Being diagnosed with a life-ending illness often evokes a desire for answers and solutions that nobody can provide. But embracing uncertainty can be a midwife to personhood and the arts of living and dying well.
Faced with a choice between death, or chronic poor health, and the tantalising prospect of a cure, few of us can resist choosing more treatment. But the experience of many who choose new drugs and medical interventions isn’t what they imagined.
Few of us want to admit our age in a Botox culture where it’s a compliment to be told we look youthful. This might be a clue as to why it’s difficult to talk about ageing and advancing frailty as inescapable facts of life.
Some health professionals encourage hope when they speak to a terminally ill person about their prognosis and end-of-life care. But investing in perpetual hope means dying people may never learn how to die.
The secret theology of our rational, secular age is that death ends relationships and reciprocity. But consigning our dead to the gone-ness of the past has far-reaching consequences.
Taking a year to live could be an opportunity to make heartfelt changes that renew and refresh our purpose and goals—long before death comes knocking.
Death disrupts the habits of a lifetime. It’s arrival grieves us because it reminds us of what we’d shared, what we haven’t, and what has ended.
The idea of doing our bucket list before we grow old and die raises the question of whether we can live a full and happy life without satisfying all of our desires.
Our pursuit of pleasure and fulfilment is costing the earth. Yet our needs are small compared to what the world needs from us. Learning the wisdom and ways of reciprocity mean answering the call to become elders.
Old myths taught people respect and reverence for life and the natural world. Like poetry and parables, the myths were pointers to a deeper wisdom about the nature of life, love, death and the unique privileges and burdens of being human.
One of the unique and troubling challenges of being human is our separation from nature. We harbour this separation in our heads, hearts and souls, a quandary that has rendered us homeless in a most profound way.
Too many of us live outside of nature and the rhythms of life that bring grounding, connectedness, wonder and sanity.
The purpose of culturally endorsed puberty rites is to end childhood and start personhood. These rites forge an ability to prize life and begin a kinship with death that says, ‘Your life has limits’.
Each of us is called to particular work, according to our biography and talents and circumstances. Answering that call is to lay claim to our deepest truth and our kinship to each other.
Despite assurances from doctors who say they can mitigate the pain of disease and the decline of a failing body, nobody should plan on pain-free living or dying.
Mindfulness means being aware of what’s happening in the present. It’s a way of coming home to ourselves that deepens our understanding and ends suffering.
People who have practical conversations with doctors about their preferences for their end-of-life care are more likely to die a ‘good death’ while sparing their families a lot of preventable heartache and distress.
Competence is a highly valued quality in our culture. But our store of knowledge and well-honed competencies don’t serve us so well in human affairs or the messy business of dying.
People living with chronic or terminal conditions have a host of reasons for wanting to die before death claims them.
Some older people are waking up to their elderhood, but if the vanishing of our elders is any measure, it’s a rare epiphany.
Dying doesn’t have to mean foreclosure or that our last days need to be congested by regrets, or unspoken words and unrequited feelings.
Dying is a series of destructive events that by its nature strips our humanity and obliterates our hopes for dying with dignity.
What becomes of our body when we die needn’t preoccupy us but we can ease the burden on loved ones by letting them know what to do with our corpse.
Journey Home is a collection of essays about living and dying with an open heart. While many of us fear death and dying, these essays argue that embracing these events can help us reclaim a richness we're denied in a death-phobic culture. What's more, opening our hearts can help us celebrate the preciousness of life and craft a life-affirming legacy for our families and loved ones. This is the journey we are all called to.
Author Dan Gaffney is a former psychologist, teacher and journalist. His writing has been published widely, including in The Australian, The Weekend Australian, Australian Doctor, Hospitals and Aged Care, The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, The Australian Journal of Public Health and Sydney Alumni Magazine. He has also been a health broadcaster for ABC Radio National. Over the past 20 years he has mentored groups about how to live and die more mindfully. His interest in writing about living and dying well was sharpened five years ago when he was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer.
Journey Home is his first book.