A Reflection on Death, Dying, and Illness
In a recent conversation with colleagues, we talked about the various ways we describe age. Whether it’s young, old, middle-age, wise, or (im)mature. I realized that I’m somewhere between feeling not really young, but also not quite middle-aged. This conversation, coupled with some recent medical issues that I’ve been contending with, has gotten me thinking about time, death, and my own mortality.
For me, the two scariest parts of dying are 1) the thought of not existing anymore (this has kept me up at night for hours, particularly during bouts of insomnia and high stress) and 2) not knowing how everything turns out. Humans have pondered question 1 forever. What is death? What does it mean to cease existing? Is there an afterlife? Have I fully lived?
In terms of question 2, I hate surprises. I’m the kind of person who quickly reads the concluding chapter of a novel and looks up how movies or television series progress and end. We know what happens in death; life, as we know it, ceases to exist. But we don’t know what happens after death. I’m also afraid that I won’t get to complete everything that I’d like to finish before I die. It is for this very reason that I’d prefer that movie companies film their three- or four- part epics in one fell swoop and then release them all at once. That way I can watch all of the Hunger Games movies or The Hobbit without fearing that I’ll die before the final one is released (and yes, I’ve read the books, but the movies are different). This is why I love Netflix and Amazon Originals.
Part of this fear also stems from a loss of control. One cannot have agency if one does not exist. As we know, agency is shaped by social structure and history. However, in death and with illness, that loss of control is explicit and evident. One may be more susceptible to cancer due to environmental classism and racism, and pollutants. Give one’s socio-economic status and/or her access to healthcare, one may be able to choose certain treatments for cancer. Regardless of one’s social, economic, or political status, however, we all will eventually die.
As a sociologist I wonder about the linkages between culture and my perceptions of death, dying, and illness. Medical sociologist Catherine Exley provides an extensive review of the existing sociological literature on death and dying here. According to Exley and others, western societies, including the U.S., have come to value youth, vitality, and health. As a contradiction to these values, death, dying, and illness have become often taboo and sad subjects that are rarely discussed, particularly at the individual level. I can openly discuss these subjects in the abstract (and sometimes do in my teaching). However, I become uncomfortable (anxious, not sure what to say or how to act) when discussing death, dying, and illness at a personal level. This is true whether I’m talking about myself or a loved one.
As with any social phenomenon, popular notions of death, dying, and illness are in constant flux. A recent article in The Atlantic highlights the impact of social media on changing the conversation of death, dying, and illness in the U.S. For some, the process of publicly sharing their grief and/or illness can both provide a therapeutic outlet and create a broader support network. At the same time, it increases our awareness and knowledge of various different types of disease and illness, and lends a view into the process of “getting better” and/or dying. When I was first diagnosed with pre-cancerous cells, I only heard cancer and freaked out. It was through a combination of talking to my doctor, online research, reading online stories from other women who’ve had the procedure, and talking with knowledgeable friends and family that I was able to calm down and pragmatically assess the information. This may have been due to the natural process of grieving and shock, however, I still felt more informed and better able to handle the diagnosis.
In the U.S. we may have a youth-obsessed culture and view death as a sad part of life. Death rituals, however, vary across cultures and time. They also vary somewhat within the United States. Kate Torgovnick May highlights different funeral traditions from the New Orleans jazz funeral, to cultural anthropologist Kelli Swazey’s description of Tana Toraja funeral celebrations, to South Korean death beads, to sky burials in Mongolia and Tibet, to Ghanaian fantasy coffins.
As a Mexican-American and pseudo-Catholic, I place an importance on memorializing the dead. The process, rites, and rituals of dying and recent death are still sad. However, the rites and rituals of remembering and honoring the dead take on a more celebratory tone. In looking through old photos and gathering together bits and pieces of memorabilia for an ofrenda during Dia de los Muertos celebrations – a cup of coffee, a concha, a book read to me by my Granny, my great-grandmother’s bracelet – I feel connected to my ancestors and friends who have died. In that remembrance, the dead continue to live. However, I’m left wondering what happens when all the people who knew you also die? At some point, most of us cease to be remembered and cease to exist. What happens then?
No one has reported back from the other side, none of us who are alive have been to the other side, and we don't have any factual evidence supporting a life (as we know it) after we die. To me, believing what I want to be true can be very comforting…, but that doesn't make it true. I find more comfort in what I know to be true. For the things I don't know, I prefer saying just that -- I don't know -- instead of entertaining supernatural guesses or made-up answers from a time when humans didn't know about the carbon cycle or the structure of  DNA....
Sociology teaches us to question everything. And, although I was raised Catholic, I don’t believe in religion and am unsure as to whether God or gods (Gods?) exist. But, similar to Rivzi, I believe that we’re made from energy and our energy continues to exist in some fashion. So even though we won’t know how it all ends – maybe it never ends – and even though all the people who ever knew us will also die, we’ll still exist in some form. Possibly as stars.