Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Being there at the end

When a relative or friend is dying, there's a lot of complex emotions that get tied up with a lot of cultural mores, and most of it is hard to consider rationally because it's not necessarily rational, it's emotional. So when I say I don't really understand it, I can't tell which parts are supposed to be understood and which aren't. And it's too sensitive a subject to ask about without fear of treading on people's feelings. It is with awareness of that that I, hesitantly, ruminate on this question.

If a person is ill or old and is likely to die at some point, there's a sense we have that we should be there "at the end" to visit with them. I think this sense derives from a time when most people lived in the same village as their relatives. It was also the case that most people who took ill would progress to their end in a fairly short period of time, measured in days. But nowadays, many people live hundreds or thousands of miles from their relatives, and people who take ill often end up in a situation where they might get better, and relapse, and spend months or years in a state where they might die and they might not. The idea of needing to be there at the end persists, and remains a strong sense of obligation, even as its vagueness makes it increasingly impractical to carry out.

When my grandmother started her decline, there were several times over the course of a couple of years when I was told she could go at any moment. And those times were probably true, she probably was very close. On a couple of those I did drop everything and go to visit (in fact, it was a side effect of the last such visit that exposed the problems that led to my expulsion from my family). As it happens, she lived for several years after the last of those. (And by time it happened, I was persona non grata so much that no one even told me.)

So even if I hadn't been invited out of my family, when would have been the moment I should have visited? Some might say I should have visited every time she took a turn -- some might even go so far as to say I should have never moved away from Long Island in the first place. (I would like to mention this as an example of the absurd extreme, but I think that there are some in my family who honestly feel that way.)

Sometimes it seems like you're playing a game where you need to try to get as close as you can without going over (like The Price Is Right), showing up as close as you can to the final moment but not missing it. If you can be there at the actual moment of passing, so much the better.

It seems like we're applying a uniform social obligation to the situation regardless of the specifics, in such a way that one wonders what it's even intended to accomplish. In a hundred movies we see that moment, always coming just in time, as the moment when closure is achieved (some long-standing disagreement, rivalry, or bad blood is put aside), or where significant comfort can be given -- either to the dying person or the relatives preparing to grieve. But in real life, even when there's no issue needing closure, or no chance that it'll be reached, and no particular comfort that'll be there by visiting at one particular time rather than another, we still have the same sense of obligation.

Those same movies are also full of countless times the opposite lesson is taught: that maybe a visit earlier might have been better after all. (Usually this is described in terms of how the flowers might have been more appreciated by someone while alive than after death. But the same applies to visits.) As with many sentimental messages, movies and stories often tell a mismatched message and make no attempt to reconcile the conflicts.

I wonder at times whether we're not just taking these ideas too much for granted and applying them even when they don't really apply, even when they actually create guilt and pain instead of easing it. Sometimes, perhaps, it would be better for everyone if we focused on all the times we did see that relative or friend, and the good memories, instead of beating ourselves up about not going just one more time, closer to the very end. It's not really about being as close as possible to the final date. Not always, anyway.

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