Why We Need to Face Our Own Mortality to Care for Others

This article was written by Redwing Keyssar, RN, Author, and Director of Palliative Care at Seniors At Home. 

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Teilhard de Chardin

“Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.” – Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

These quotes about mortality come from two very different people. One, an early 20th century French Theologian and philosopher – the other an American surgeon and public health researcher, of East Indian background, who wrote a New York Times best-selling book in 2015.

What these quotes show us is that facing our mortality is nothing new. Though in some cultures, death is accepted as simply a part of life and is integrated into foundational and spiritual practices, in America we still struggle to accept death at all. Even mentioning the ‘D’ word can feel like a taboo that haunts our conversations, both public and private.

We live in a world that is saturated with advertising that asks us to buy products to make us look young, feel young, and stay “youthful” – as if we can avoid the aging process. But as far as I can tell, throughout the centuries and all over the world, the only alternative to aging is dying. So hey, maybe aging is actually the path we should wish to take! And maybe, just maybe….we could even have a good time learning how to accept our own mortality.

As part of our palliative care offering at Seniors At Home, we train several volunteers each year through our Palliative Care Volunteer training program. These volunteers are then matched with our clients, each of whom are dealing with serious illness or are nearing the end of life, to provide companionship and specialized support.

Many of our volunteers have told us that their palliative care training actually felt like a ”training for living.” It is indeed a training about how to live fully, knowing that we will all die someday. We do not receive any teaching in our culture about mortality, about what it means to encounter serious illness, how it feels to become disabled, or how it feels to let go of things and identities that are meaningful to us.

We often are too afraid to truly reflect on our own values about death, in order for the end of our lives to be a time of respect, or even perhaps of celebration. And we typically are not shown what it means to be present for another person who is suffering with a serious or end-stage illness. Many people want to know what to do for a person, and yet compassion is much more about being there than about doing anything.

Yes—everyone needs to contemplate these realities! Speaking as a healthcare professional, I know that we need to understand these concepts just as much as anyone and yet we are still taught very little regarding conversations about death and dying, or about how to accept and deal with our own feelings.

In truth, there are also not enough healthcare professionals to go around to assist the 80 million Baby Boomers who are now in the aging process. It will fall on all of us, as a community, to show up for those at the end of life. This means that we all must get more comfortable with feelings and conversations about caring for those at the end of life, and we all must learn how to navigate the healthcare system and advocate for others as needed.

Redwing Keyssar has been the director of Palliative Care at JFCS for 11 years. She is a frequent contributor to the public conversations about Palliative Care, and presents nationally as well as locally.