Posted on February 11, 2015 at 8:00 AM
I just finished reading Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal and would recommend it to anyone interested in the issues surrounding death and dying. In the book Gawande comes across as both a caring physician and an engaging author. He weaves together the things he has learned about how we die and stories of the lives of a number of people as the live out the last years or days of their lives. The people he writes about include his own family, his patients, and people he came across in his research. The medium of telling their stories is also part of the message. One of the things he is trying to say is that each of our lives is a story and that as a story it is meaningful to us when it has purpose and direction; when the story is about more than just fulfilling our own desires.
Along the way he shares what he has found about how the frail elderly can still live lives that have meaning to them, and how we can use a better understanding of what makes life meaningful to help direct how we provide medical care. There are practical tips like the use of the phrase “I am worried” as a way of expressing concern about a terminal patient’s condition, and a set of questions to use to help learn what a dying person’s real goals are so that care can conform to those goals. He provides excellent documentation of the benefits of palliative and hospice care.
One of the primary insights in the book is that life is meaningful when we have something to life for that is more than ourselves. We feel life is worth living when we have someone to love or even something to care for. He tells the story of a physician who became medical director of a nursing home and found the place dead and depressing and transformed it by bringing in life. Instead of maintaining the focus on safety above all things; he brought in 2 dogs, 4 cats, and 100 parakeets. He wasn’t sure how they would manage them, but as the residents began to care for the animals they started having a purpose for their lives. They began to live rather than just exist. In another story he tells of a piano teacher who was dying of cancer who arranged the goals of her hospice care to be able to continue to teach her students and impart to them the message that they were special.
Gawande reaches his conclusions about what makes life meaningful from a secular perspective. As the son of Hindu parents who never accepted their religion, he sees things without a spiritual perspective. For Christians I think his insights can have even greater meaning. Having a purpose for living that is outside of us and our own self-interest is what Christianity is about. We understand that we have been created by a relational God who desires for us to live in relationship with him and to bring glory to him. This is the ultimate purpose outside ourselves. God has also placed us in relationship with each other in families and churches. Caring for each other gives meaning to our lives. In the center of this is prayer. No matter how strong or frail we may be from a child who has just begun to understand who God is to the frailest of our older brothers and sisters we all have the privilege of going to God in prayer. Prayer both deepens our relationship with God which is his desire for us and allows us to intercede for others and play a role in God’s plans for them. As we care for those who are dying we need to remember that they can continue to contribute to the lives of others in many ways, including prayer.