Commentary | Piñata diplomacy: Death is not a failure

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?” – 1 Corinthians 15:55

There was an article in The New York Times last week about a sweet old woman, Marie-Dennett McDill. After being diagnosed with fast-spreading cancer this August, McDill checked herself into her beloved, posh Carlyle Hotel in New York to spend her dwindling days.

It was a touching human-interest story that certainly made one think of the way one wants to leave this bizarre world. She went out with a bang, and why should she not? Far better, I say, than the sterility of the modern hospital death, nurses rushing and TV sets blaring. Reading this story, I admired the woman’s faithful Epicureanism.

Which is why it struck me all the more to read this quote from her son: “It wasn’t a fight for life anymore, but a matter of time.”

This model of illness as a fight is a fairly modern construction, and one to which I adamantly object. It rings as inhumane, almost to the point of cruelty.

A fight is something one can either win or lose. I completely understand the desire for a loved one to “win their fight” with whatever ails them – physically, mentally, or otherwise. But I reject the construct that views such an ailment as something that one can “defeat,” “beat,” or “win over.”

There are a few people close to me who were diagnosed with illnesses in the last year or two that, given enough time, have a mortality rate of 100 per cent. My earnest attempt at stoicism does not go so far as to allow me to reject western medicine and leave it all up to Providence.

However, I believe that to frame a patient as waging “battle” against their illness carries with it some cumbersome implications. Most importantly, it frames death as a failure – of the doctors, the family, and friends, and worst of the all the patient herself. It implies that if the patient had only fought a little bit longer, perhaps the battle would have turned in her direction. Sometimes it is best to let go.

Such an atmosphere of battle is emotionally debilitating for all involved, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out there were psychosomatic effects of all this “fight to the death” mentality.

The Onion had a headline a few years ago that humorously but accurately reflected the ridiculousness of this sentiment: “World Death Rate Holding Steady At 100 Per cent.”

Almost universally, death is the most painful part of life. But it need not be an anti-climactic defeat, a lost battle in the lopsided crusade for impossible immortality – in a word, surrender. The onset of death – in a person who has lived a long and fulfilling life – can be seen as a victory or a reward, celebration of successful completion in what Robert Frost called “the trial by existence.” What is more powerful than sending a weary loved one into the sweet, sweet slumber of the beyond?

It is absurd – and, most importantly – morally hazardous to wage a war on things invincible. When the painful time comes for each of us to bid adieu to our loved ones, let us congratulate them on their successful completion of the universe’s strange test.

Walt Whitman gets the final words:

From all the rest I single out you, having a message for you,

You are to die – let others tell you what they please, I cannot prevaricate,

I am exact and merciless, but I love you – there is no escape for you.

The sun bursts through in unlooked-for directions,

Strong thoughts fill you and confidence, you smile,

You forget you are sick, as I forget you are sick,

You do not see the medicines, you do not mind the weeping friends, I am with you,

I exclude others from you, there is nothing to be commiserated,

I do not commiserate, I congratulate you.

Ricky’s column appears every Monday. You can reach him at pinatadiplomacy@mcgilldaily.com.


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