August 3, 2021

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How Do You View Death?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

This past year has been filled with death: More than 300,000 people in the United States and 1.6 million worldwide have died from the coronavirus.

Has the pandemic changed your understanding of death and dying? Have you had to grieve the death of a loved one? Has it made you consider your own mortality more? Has it made you appreciate the impermanence of life? Or have the staggering numbers made you feel numb?

In “What Is Death?,” Dr. BJ Miller writes about how the coronavirus pandemic has transformed our understanding of mortality and offers several frameworks for thinking about death:

This year has awakened us to the fact that we die. We’ve always known it to be true in a technical sense, but a pandemic demands that we internalize this understanding. It’s one thing to acknowledge the deaths of others, and another to accept our own. It’s not just emotionally taxing; it is difficult even to conceive. To do this means to imagine it, reckon with it and, most important, personalize it. Your life. Your death.

Covid-19’s daily death and hospitalization tallies read like ticker tape or the weather report. This week, the death toll passed 300,000 in the United States. Worldwide, it’s more than 1.6 million. The cumulative effect is shock fatigue or numbness, but instead of turning away, we need to fold death into our lives. We really have only two choices: to share life with death or to be robbed by death.

Fight, flight or freeze. This is how we animals are wired to respond to anything that threatens our existence. We haven’t evolved — morally or socially — to deal with a health care system with technological powers that verge on godly. Dying is no longer so intuitive as it once was, nor is death necessarily the great equalizer. Modern medicine can subvert nature’s course in many ways, at least for a while. But you have to have access to health care for health care to work. And eventually, whether because of this virus or something else, whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, death still comes.

What is death? I’ve thought a lot about the question, though it took me many years of practicing medicine even to realize that I needed to ask it. Like almost anyone, I figured death was a simple fact, a singular event. A noun. Obnoxious, but clearer in its borders than just about anything else. The End. In fact, no matter how many times I’ve sidled up to it, or how many words I’ve tried on, I still can’t say what it is.

If we strip away the poetry and appliqué our culture uses to try to make sense of death — all the sanctity and style we impose on the wild, holy trip of a life that begins, rises and falls apart — we are left with a husk of a body. No pulse, no brain waves, no inspiration, no explanation. Death is defined by what it lacks.

The essay continues:

Beyond fear and isolation, maybe this is what the pandemic holds for us: the understanding that living in the face of death can set off a cascade of realization and appreciation. Death is the force that shows you what you love and urges you to revel in that love while the clock ticks. Reveling in love is one sure way to see through and beyond yourself to the wider world, where immortality lives. A pretty brilliant system, really, showing you who you are (limited) and all that you’re a part of (vast). As a connecting force, love makes a person much more resistant to obliteration.

You might have to loosen your need to know what lies ahead. Rather than spend so much energy keeping pain at bay, you might want to suspend your judgment and let your body do what a body does. If the past, present and future come together, as we sense they must, then death is a process of becoming.

So, once more, what is death? If you’re reading this, you still have time to respond. Since there’s no known right answer, you can’t get it wrong. You can even make your life the answer to the question.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • How often do you think about the fact that you will die one day — that we all will? Does contemplating your own mortality make life more vibrant for you? Or does it fill you with dread?

  • How do you view death? Do any of the perspectives shared by Dr. Miller resonate with you? Do you see death as a medical condition? An anatomical process? A religious or spiritual experience? Or something else?

  • Dr. Miller asks: “What is death to you? When do you know you’re done? What are you living for in the meantime?” How would you answer these questions and why?

  • Have you had any experience with death — the death of a loved one, a community member or someone you looked up to? How did that experience shape your understanding of death? How did it affect the way you live your own life, if at all?

  • Is death something that is easy for you to talk about with your family and community? Why or why not? Do you and your family have rituals — religious, secular or spiritual — that help you reckon with death and dying?

  • How well do you think our society deals with death? Are we able to look at the meaning of death — and its relation to life — with care and nuance? Or do we hide from and minimize it? How do you think we could confront the inevitability of death better?

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