Our culture simply doesn't know what to think about death. Through medicine and science we know more about death and how to forestall it than ever before. Yet we know very little about caring for a dying person. We don't know what to expect or how to prepare for our own death. And we're often awkward at best when trying to comfort a friend in grief.
Our culture is fighting, and sometimes succeeding, to expand the so-called right to die. We hear stories of the compassion of family members and doctors who assist in the deaths of terminally ill patients. Yet our doctors and hospitals are astounding in their ability and passionate desire to rescue cancer sufferers, accident victims, or heart-attack patients. We have come to expect medical breakthroughs, vaccines, and wonder-working drugs.
There is no shortage of books, studies, and experts ready to explain our culture's fear of death or our eagerness to avoid it. Yet some of our bestsellers—Tuesdays with Morrie, The Last Lecture, 90 Minutes in Heaven—feature stories about people dying, or nearly so, and the lessons they discovered at the end of life. Celebrities give a whole society the opportunity to follow along in the struggle with a terminal disease and publicly, at least on TV, mourn their deaths.
Having volunteered with hospice patients and worked with grieving families at a funeral home, I've seen the results of this confusion firsthand. Interviewing families, doctors, and hospice workers, it's clear that our paradoxical approach to death is largely due to the fact that we are strangers to death—despite it being ever present. Caring for elderly parents is typically our first prolonged and engaged confrontation with death. Even then, however, doctors and nurses often guide us through the experience. It's not unusual for children to care for their parents from a distance, calling doctors or arranging transportation and nursing care, further removing us from face-to-face interaction with death and dying.
Death is all around us, however. Our movies are filled with violent deaths. Daily news reports feature wars that may involve our own neighbors, family members, or church friends. We receive appeals from development agencies and news outlets to help ethnic groups, such as those in Darfur, targeted for violence by more powerful neighbors. We are asked to support relief workers caring for people struck by famine, natural disasters, or epidemics.
Even at a young age, we are around death. A friend from my high school youth group killed herself. Another friend from college died one summer in a car accident. My brother's youth group volunteer was murdered at a highway rest stop. Facebook friends fill their updates with information on ailing relatives.
Tragic as these incidents are, however, they are not the same as a sustained face-to-face encounter with a loved one on his deathbed. They don't affect our lives in the same way. Prayer requests and Facebook updates do not breed familiarity. While they can and should lead us to reflect on our own death and encourage us to live in the light of our mortality, often our busy lives don't allow this reflection. Death, while ever present, is ever more removed from our firsthand experience.
The average American's first intimate encounter with death might not occur until she is well beyond middle age. In fact, as people routinely live into their 90s, it is now not unusual to have elderly children taking care of their even more elderly parents.