One of the most surprising things I discovered while creating this blog for dying people is the idea that we can control the process of dying. Here’s a glimpse into what thanatologist Kristine Kevorkian has learned from her studies and work with people at the end of their lives…
“The longer I worked with my hospice patients and the more I read about end-of-life care, the more I realized that people can have control over the dying process,” says Kristine Kevorkian, PhD, MSW. “There are so many myths about dying, which are being dispelled daily. You’ve heard of people waiting for a specific date to die, or waiting for loved ones to visit before dying. Others wait to be given permission to die by loved ones before actually dying. We have control enough over our dying that people have called loved ones and literally died in front of them, or waited until people left a room before dying.”
Here, Kristine shares her views on death and dying. She holds a doctoral degree in thanatology, which is the study/science of death, dying and bereavement. Her work experience includes deputy coroner, unit social worker for a skilled nursing facility, and hospice medical social worker offering emotional support and counseling to terminally ill patients and their families.
Thoughts on the Dying Process
Time is more precious than gold. “One terminally ill child I worked with in hospice was very frank about time,” says Kristine. “When his visit with me was over, he politely told me to leave. We were done.” She encourages us all to do the same. If there are people in your life that you’d rather not spend time with, then don’t. Time is more precious than gold because you can always get more gold, but you’ll never get your time back. That time wasted with the telemarketer is gone forever. Time spent with the neighbor instead of loved ones – gone. Kristine encourages us to please stop killing time.
A “good” death is possible. “The biggest thing I wish I knew when I started working with people who are dying is how much control we have over the dying process,” says Kristine. “So many people follow the medical model, only to learn that dying and grieving are so unique to the individual. We can’t have a one size fits all mentality to the end of life. We die the way we live.” If you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, you have more control over your death than you may think.
Spiritual and emotional support is crucial during the dying process. We need to talk about our anxieties, grief, and fear that comes with the process of dying. “Western medicine is now seeing the links between mind, body, and spirit,” says Kristine. “Our physical pain and discomfort can perhaps be a symptom of spiritual and/or emotional pain that can be alleviated by the simple act of having someone listen with empathy and compassion, and simply BEING with the dying. Touch is also very important, holding hands, connecting physically and intimately with the person.”
Caring for someone at the end of life is a gift. As a society, we seem to fear being a burden. However, supporting someone as he transitions to death – especially with the thought that you have control over the dying process – is a very intimate experience if you had a good relationship with the person dying. Kristine says, “If the relationship was abusive, perhaps a dying father who was abusive to his daughter when she was a child and now she is the caregiver, it might be a challenge and one that might not be beneficial for the daughter.” It could also bring them closer together, and help with forgiving and healing old wounds. If the relationship is strained, it might be beneficial to find caregiving help and remain in your role as friend/daughter/wife/son.
“I talk about death all the time which is sometimes irritating to those who don’t share my views,” says Kristine. “Death gives me such a great appreciation for life! My first patient taught me a motto that I live by: If you were to die in a month, would you be doing what you’re doing today? Life is so short. Are you living? Surviving? Or Existing?”
If you aren’t living life fully – if you’re killing time – read 5 Ways to Die Without Regret.
Dr. Kristine Kevorkian has lectured and taught classes on aging, trauma, end-of-life care, death, bereavement, grief and loss to medical and mental health professionals and students. She leads educational workshops and seminars, and writes on the subjects of dying/death, caregiving, grief/loss, animal companion loss, and grief related to environmental loss and destruction. She currently hosts/facilitates a Death Café in her community, and has a private practice as an *End of Life Navigator*, helping clients, and their families, sail through the sometimes stormy seas at the end of life and through their grief.