bert keizer   On Dying  
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  The other day I read an apocryphal story about Adam, our legendary forefather. It is said that when he was 938 years old and felt that his end was near, he called his children to his bedside to explain to them what they were about to witness. For, of course, they had never seen a person die.

Although we've certainly lost this fairy tale sort of innocence towards death, I sometimes wonder if we do not consider ourselves a little too knowledgeable on the subject. One of the problems surrounding death is, that so few of us have any clear ideas about it. No, I don't mean that we wouldn't have any clear or foggy ideas about being dead, but most of us have no idea of what dying is like. We are in a comparable position on the point of birth: most of us nowadays attend only two or three deliveries during a lifetime, either as an onlooker or as main performer. But, in any case, always in a pent up emotional state which hardly predisposes to quiet observation.

The same goes for deathbeds: the average late 20th-century European doesn't attend a sufficient number of deathbeds to arrive at some sort of realistic appraisal of the process of dying. The thousands of television-versions of dying are only distorting. Death on screen is always a very obvious business: the dying woman fumbles with the bedcover, or does some tossing and turning, is restless, anyhow, then sends one more piercing glance into the world, speaks a grammatically correct sentence and then closes her eyes, turns her head aside and places a full-stop at the end of her life.

This is so grossly besides the truth that it's not even wrong. And yet this sequence is so universally accepted that many people, when they are standing right next to an actually dying person, wouldn't realize what's going on.

It happened to me quite a few times that I had to draw the attention of a patient's family, who were quite happily chatting away, that at that very moment their father was in the process of dying. The point is that dying may take days, or weeks, or maybe even months, and that, of course, is almost impossible to film or describe.

I'm saying all this because often I think that people ask for euthanasia, or think about euthanasia, precisely because they don't know what dying is like. And how would they?

Most people die unknowingly. Forgetting the TV-version of dying, most people just slip into unconsciousness all unawares, in precisely the way we fall asleep every evening. People usually look on death as the one last and most horrible task they have to perform, right at the very end of what has, most often than not, been a pretty heavy and difficult journey.

Death as an unclimbable fence, a horribly barbed hurdle?

Usually it is nothing of the sort. As the old saying goes: where death is, I am not, where I am, death is not. To avoid a misunderstanding I want to emphasize that what I am saying here doesn't imply anything about the nature of being dead. About what it's like to be dead, or where we are going to, when we are dead. Nor can these thoughts be any comfort on the point of our fear of death, meaning the dread of being mortal.

In most cases dying is hardly to be described as a horrible event for the person in question. And I hope I don't sound too flippant when I say to you, as a rule dying is a quite durable process. I am stressing these rather unexciting facts because I think too often people who talk about euthanasia lose sight of them.

It follows from this that requests for euthanasia are often based on groundless fears and can almost always be answered by a sincere promise to alleviate suffering in the last hours.

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Copyright © 1997 Bert Keizer.