Is death always tragic, or can there be a "good death"?

Musings Report #1   1-5-14   A Good Death?

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A Good Death?

I'd like to start the New Year by welcoming new subscribers and contributors, and expressing my gratitude to returning subscribers and contributors. Your support makes the site viable.

Given that the New Year is typically a time for new resolutions and new beginnings, there is a certain irony in choosing the first Musings of the year to discuss the notion of a Good Death. What prompted the topic was a recent experience.

A few days ago, the stepdaughter of one of my mother-in-law's elderly neighbors/friends called, asking if her 83-year old stepfather was visiting us, as his door was open but he was not at home. We replied that he was not at our house, and then went up the street to investigate.

We found the stepdaughter hysterically distraught, calling 911 on her mobile phone. She'd found her stepfather laying immobile in the back yard, and she was sobbing, "I think he might be dead."

The gentleman was gone from this world, and had obviously expired from a heart attack a hour or two before, as he lay on his back as if pushed over and his limbs were already cold. His expression was peaceful, and his small trimming saw lay near his hand where it had fallen.  He had been a good and kind stepfather, husband and friend, and his passing was a loss for all who knew him: his family, friends, the neighborhood and his church, where he and two other retired parishioners had maintained the church grounds for many years.

He'd recently had a defibrillator implanted, and had expressed delight with the difference in energy he felt after years of heart disease and the effects of diabetes. It was difficult not to conclude that he'd taken the alleviation of symptoms for the restoration of health, and over-exerted himself.

We are taught that every death is a tragedy, but seeing a natural death in a natural setting struck me a good death--quick, painless, doing work that he'd loved in  a yard he'd loved caring for.

Most of us outside the first-responder/emergency healthcare sectors do not witness death first-hand very often; for most of us, death comes in an institutional setting, either a hospital bed or a hospice bed, and we see the deceased not in a natural state but in a processed state, or hooked up to machines in a place far from home and the things and activities they'd cherished.

While I understood the shock and grief of the stepdaughter, it seemed to me that her hysteria was not powered by grief alone--that the exposure to death had completely unnerved her. When her son arrived, she asked him to cover the body with a tarp, as it had started raining (we'd already done so with a cloth), and the young man crumpled at the prospect of seeing the body of his elderly step-grandfather. We offered him comfort and took care of protecting the body from the rain.

Having known the gentleman for many years, my wife and I felt no discomfort staying with him until the official responders (paramedics and police officers) arrived in response to the 911 call.

There are many ironies in The American Way of Death, and a variety of authors and commentators have discussed these in recent decades.  We witness countless violent deaths on TV and in films, and we have watched countless hours of TV series set in hospitals, where the protagonists strive to stave off death. Yet our actual experience of the death of a person we knew well has been largely institutionalized and thus detached from normal life. We witness countless deaths but are seemingly terrified of a natural death.

Our culture implicitly reckons death is always a tragedy and something that must be staved off regardless of the cost or wishes of the patient; in this mindset, there is no room for a "good death," as every death is an institutional failing or something that occurs off-stage, managed by institutional staff, paramedics and the police.

Another elderly friend of ours had arranged to die at home.  By arranged, I mean that she had enlisted caregivers (friends rather than hired professionals) and had decided to cease dialysis treatments.  She was a tough-minded person and knew exactly what she was doing.  As a result, she died peacefully at home, without any official interventions. Her caregiver called us shortly after she'd expired, and we went to her home to pay our respects. She looked much as she did when asleep.

Of course we all want to live forever, not on a spiritual plane, but in this mortal life; this is how we are designed.  Yet the design of life also includes death, and so we can distinguish, I think, between a good death and a less-good death. Death in some fashion is inevitable, and perhaps our culture's near-frantic efforts to push death into institutional corners have left us with little opportunity to experience death as the natural (and therefore as "good" as any other part) end-state of life.

Denied any experience of a good death, we are poorer for this willful exclusion of death from the every-day flow of life.

Summary of the Blog This Past Week

Competence, Creativity, Mastery, Genius: The Essential Role of Risk January 4, 2014
A New Way of Defining Wealth January 3, 2014

Could the Fed Lose Control of the Frankenstein Economy It Has Created January 2, 2014

Eight Trends to Watch in 2014/2015  January 1, 2014

When Risk Is Separated From Gain, The System Is Doomed  December 31, 2013

Austerity Isn't Negative--It's Essential to Good Planning and Decision-Making  December 30, 2013

While I think my entry on the unique value of austerity is one of my best, the "trends to watch in 2014" piece attracted over 50,000 reads on Zero Hedge.

Best Thing That Happened To Me This Week

We flew from Hilo to Honolulu to meet our longtime Japanese friend Kayo, who was visiting Hawaii with her husband and two young sons. We first met her in 1998 as a recent college graduate studying in the U.S. Deep friendships can hibernate for years without physical meetings, and then effortlessly bridge the passage of years. We'd last seen Kayo on a trip to Japan in 2005, and those years disappeared the moment we saw her. 

Market Musings

I confess that being busy with friends and family has distanced me from the stock, bond, precious metals and currency markets.  Each market looks increasingly like a roller-coaster that rises and falls without much rationality; the point seems to be to offer participants an opportunity to experience thrills and chills without actually making any progress.

My intuition is that major tops are being put in place, but it will take more "buy the dip" exhaustion of what's worked for five years to actually reach identifiable tops in these markets. The Status Quo has staked virtually its entire viability on rising markets, and it will not allow a crash to threaten its narrative of "growth" and "rising wealth."  Any decline will have to be uncontrollable, i.e. the financial equivalent of a plague that bypasses the central bank-managed monoculture's defenses. As I noted in my "Fed Frankenstein" entry, central planning engineering perfects the power of threats to bypass the system's defenses.

We can anticipate such a break in central bank defenses, but that anticipation doesn't provide us with a date.  Patience and detachment can be useful strategies at times like these.

From Left Field

Portraits of Children Around the World and Where They Sleep

The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder (via Joel M.)
The number of diagnoses soared as makers of the drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder found success with a two-decade marketing campaign.

That Financial Crisis Was No Accident by Marc Faber (via John D.)

Trade Advantage Replaced by Rent Extraction by Michael Hudson

America’s rental crisis -- what happens when hedge funds become landlords....

New Garden Cities will inspire co-operative communities (via John D.)

In the Murky World of Bitcoin, Fraud Is Quicker Than the Law (via Joel M.)
Illicit activity is rising in the virtual currency market, where there is an increasing amount of real money but few rules and even less oversight.

Unemployed Greeks Reconnect as Underground Electricians Defy Law

Far from idyll, rural France feels left in the past (via Joel M.)
SOUSCEYRAC, France - The first thing a visitor to this rural French village sees upon entering town are road signs pointing the way out.

The Sickness of Factory Farming (via John D.)

The Adjunct’s Lament: Even in the ivory tower, work is often solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Master con woman who scammed Beijing's high society (via Maoxian)
A remarkable Chinese con woman is jailed for life after scamming £6 million from a glittering array of Olympic gold medalists, television stars and other celebrities

water, water, everywhere (via Joel M.) breathtakingly detailed paintings of the sea

Thanks for reading--
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