Our anxiety is the barrier to compassionate care. Our anxiety comes from our lack of experience, skills, or knowledge. We are not taught how to respond in the ways that are needed. In the same way we do not teach people how to parent (the most important job in our lifetime), we assume that we will all know how to approach dying and grieving. It is not part of our DNA; these are skills that must be taught, practiced, sanctioned, and reinforced. We must be given vocabulary with which to put the experiences into context, make meaning, and express ourselves. We must have role models that demonstrate what it means to be compassionate, caring, and empathetic. All of this will serve as a foundation that dramatically and directly affects our underlying beliefs about the end of life.
Our attitudes, myths, and asssumptions about death, dying and grief stifle our capacity to be of service. In our culture, we do not have the structure from which to question or investigate those myths; we carry the burden of fear as though that which we resist and fear is an incontrovertible truth. We are stricken, paralyzed to move toward what most needs our attention and presence.
Sterotypes that we hold lull us into not recognizing our diversity. All old people are not frail; many are active and engaged and thriving while others are sedentary and isolating. All older patients do not have pain, nor are they all riddled with illness. The young die too, and we must not dismiss each person’s unique needs, values, and different ways of living out their life.
I believe that it is not illness, or the progressive decline of an infirm body that causes us the greatest distress. It is our myths, fears and assumptions that are the living cancers, cutting off our life force and individual capacity to live the life we came to express. I challenge each of us to ask ourselves what it is we believe about death, dying, illness…and then ask “how do I know that is true?” Would you be willing to open to the possibility that there is another way to experience the end of life?… and then set out to build a life now that supports that?