ARE YOU STILL IMMORTAL?
My psychiatry professor asked our Death and Dying class “at what age do you expect to die?” This question was met with a variety of responses: Furtive glances at others, hyperventilation, sweating, a quick search for the exit door, anger and disbelief. We thought he was kidding.
“No, really”, he said, “I think I’ll die in my late 70s. What about the rest of you?”
This was a tough question to spring on us and I wondered what it had to do with patient care.
As scientists, some of us began discussing the predictive value of genetics with the addition of future medical advances minus high risk sports and unhealthy habits. One of my classmates began to feverishly construct mathematical formulas. Others stared blankly out the window.
I raised my hand.
“Why do you ask?”
“So you’ll have greater empathy for your dying patients.”
He seemed to think it was time to shake our denial; to teach us some humility; to open our minds.
I thought he was unreasonably provocative.
I said, “I don’t want to think about when I will die. Maybe it will jinx me. Maybe I’ll have a subconscious deadline.”
I wondered if he were casting a spell. Maybe I was just being rebellious.
“All right then. At least 100 years old! Are you satisfied?”
“Do you mean it?”
“What? That I expect to make it to 100 or more? Well yes. God willing of course.”
He thought I was resisting his question.
If I could avoid the issue of mortality I would not have to fear it. I would not have to consider loss of function or the loss of possibilities.
Naturally I knew none of us would live forever but I didn’t want to feel it.
The denial of death and the illusion of immortality helps people go into combat, engage in high risk behaviors, and delay important decisions like where to go with a career, whether to have a family, and how to plan for retirement.
The awareness my professor was inducing had drawbacks. Some of my classmates stopped taking public transportation late at night. My lab partner cancelled his sky-diving lessons. I stopped riding my bicycle to class through a rough part of town. Our rugby team lost some members.
I asked my professor “Why do you think we should increase our awareness of our own death?”
“Because it will increase your awareness of the death and dying of your patients and make you better doctors.”
“Is there something you want us to learn about ourselves?”
“I just want you to have compassion for your patients.”
I decided there had to be more that he wasn’t saying. I thought I had plenty of compassion but it was clear that I did not want to confront my mortality, at least not in front of him and my classmates.
Years later my professor’s question began to make sense to me. My best friend Jake died in a freak midair collision just after medical school. He left behind two young children and a loving wife. My next best friend Kevin endured a losing battle with brain cancer. A brilliant psychologist, he was well aware of life and death. We talked and cried together. One evening as the sun was setting outside his hospital window, he raised his arm weakly so the rays of sunlight would rest on his skin. “Pretty” was all he said. I finally understood another lesson my professor was teaching: Life is delicate and temporary and it’s meant to be savored, even during the hardest times.
Acknowledging mortality, although it can be sad and scary, is liberating. Awareness of death can help us savor the big events and notice the little moments of life; to honor the people who we care about and who care about us; to do the things that are important, meaningful and enjoyable rather than delay them; and to feel grateful for what we have.
My psychiatry professor became my mentor. Through him, I met numerous famous people and became aware of a world I never imagined in my small rural childhood town.
One of my professor’s houseguests, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, wrote the book On Death and Dying. She was a delightful free thinker who later in life lived communally and took an interest in mysticism. I hoped she found the answer to what happens after death before she went there.
Being aware of mortality is less painful for me now. I don’t fight the notion of dying as much as I used to and I am more grateful for being alive.
Death teaches us about life – not only how precious life is but also how important it is to live it meaningfully and responsibly. Awareness of death highlights the value of life.
I learned about my professor’s death on a National Public Radio show honoring his life. John Fryer did not make it to his late 70s. Sadly, perhaps because of his genetics and how intensely he lived, he died at age 64. During his life he lived fully with few regrets and much gratitude. Maybe that was part of his lesson.