Is Dying “Not As Bad as You Think”?

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What’s your take on the popular BBC “IMHO” video?

My first thought was that Dr Kathryn Mannix is a Mr Rogers for the dying: who wouldn’t want her warm and normalizing bedside manner at the deathbed?

I appreciate much of her message, and can’t help but be troubled by other parts of this reassuring video. 

Helpful:

  • “We’ve lost the rich human wisdom of normal dying – and it’s time for us to talk about dying, and reclaim the wisdom.”
  • “We’ve stopped mentioning the D word. [With our insistence on euphemisms] families don’t understand that death is approaching when those words are used.”
  • “A family will sit around the bed… of somebody dying and not know what to say… and the dying person doesn’t know what to say either.”
  • “…dying is something we should be reclaiming, we should be talking about, we should be consoling each other about.”

Dr Mannix spends the heart of the video explaining “What normal human dying looks like”:

  • “Well dying, just like giving birth, is really just a process.”
  • She describes how one is awake less and asleep more until eventually unconscious all the time, gently explaining the “death rattle” that troubles so many families as when “the patient is so deeply relaxed, so deeply unconscious, they’re not even feeling that tickle of saliva as the air bubbles through it.”
  • Death comes finally as “Shallow breathing, then one out breath not followed by an in breath.”

Of course, these days, it’s hard to separate content from packaging. Her message’s title is catchy but reinforces the problem as much as it challenges it. There’s so much pressure to deliver everything in sound bites and easy 3-step solutions that nuance gets left on the cutting room floor.

The biggest concern I have with this death-as-easy message is that it reduces the dying person to a passive body simply drifting out to sea on a tide of unconsciousness. I’ve seen a few such deaths – but I’ve seen many more that were hard labor. It’s not easy coming into this world through the birth canal, and it’s not always easy going out. That’s not necessarily a problem to be solved.

What is a problem, in my own humble opinion, is how hard a “normal human death” is to come by. Through focusing on non-medicalized deaths I imagine Dr Mannix is trying to increase the proportion of deaths not subjected to Hail Mary interventions and the hope agenda that prevents any recognition that the dying time is in fact at hand and has been for some time.

It’s not just a lack of recognition of what “a normal human death” looks like that keeps families from talking as they might as death approaches. It’s the refusal to die, the disbelief, the treating of death as an injustice, the life lived as though it would go on forever, the deeply withered death rites and remembrance practices that don’t provide any connection to those who died before us, and our throttled approach to grief as private and psychological and unwelcome in both death-phobic and “death positive” settings – that are the source of so much of the “scene of sadness and anxiety and despair” this video seeks to prevent.

Watch the video and let me know what you think.

 

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