In What Really Matters gleaned from her work as a hospice physician, Dr. Karen Wyatt shares the life lessons and spiritual transformations experienced by her patients and their loved ones at the end-of-life.
For many, it’s simply comfort, respect, love. BJ Miller is a palliative care physician at Zen Hospice Project who thinks deeply about how to create a dignified, graceful end of life for his patients. Take the time to savor this moving talk, which asks big questions about how we think on death and honor life.
The experience of dying
My purpose today is to reach out across disciplines and invite design thinking into this big conversation.That is, to bring intention and creativity to the experience of dying. We have a monumental opportunity in front of us, before one of the few universal issues as individuals as well as a civil society: to rethink and redesign how it is we die.
For most people, the scariest thing about death isn’t being dead, it’s dying, suffering. It’s a key distinction. To get underneath this, it can be very helpful to tease out suffering which is necessary as it is, from suffering we can change. The former is a natural, essential part of life, part of the deal, and to this we are called to make space, adjust, grow. It can be really good to realize forces larger than ourselves. They bring proportionality, like a cosmic right-sizing. After my limbs were gone,that loss, for example, became fact, fixed — necessarily part of my life, and I learned that I could no more reject this fact than reject myself. It took me a while, but I learned it eventually. Now, another great thing about necessary suffering is that it is the very thing that unites caregiver and care receiver — human beings. This, we are finally realizing, is where healing happens. Yes, compassion — literally, as we learned yesterday — suffering together.
Now, on the systems side, on the other hand, so much of the suffering is unnecessary, invented. It serves no good purpose. But the good news is, since this brand of suffering is made up, well, we can change it.How we die is indeed something we can affect. Making the system sensitive to this fundamental distinction between necessary and unnecessary suffering gives us our first of three design cues for the day. After all, our role as caregivers, as people who care, is to relieve suffering — not add to the pile.
Designing towards comfort and existential peace
In my work over the years, I’ve known many people who were ready to go, ready to die. Not because they had found some final peace or transcendence, but because they were so repulsed by what their lives had become — in a word, cut off, or ugly. There are already record numbers of us living with chronic and terminal illness, and into ever older age. And we are nowhere near ready or prepared for this silver tsunami. We need an infrastructure dynamic enough to handle these seismic shifts in our population.Now is the time to create something new, something vital. I know we can because we have to. The alternative is just unacceptable. And the key ingredients are known: policy, education and training, systems, bricks and mortar. We have tons of input for designers of all stripes to work with.
We know, for example, from research what’s most important to people who are closer to death: comfort; feeling unburdened and unburdening to those they love; existential peace; and a sense of wonderment and spirituality.
We can design towards it. Parts of me died early on, and that’s something we can all say one way or another. I got to redesign my life around this fact, and I tell you it has been a liberation to realize you can always find a shock of beauty or meaning in what life you have left, like that snowball lasting for a perfect moment, all the while melting away. If we love such moments ferociously, then maybe we can learn to live well — not in spite of death, but because of it. Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination.