Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Avoiding the 'D' Word

This week's On Faith Question from the Washington Post:
Proposed health-care reform legislation includes a provision that allows Medicare to pay for "end-of-life" counseling for seniors and their families who request it. The provision -- which Sarah Palin erroneously described as "death panels" for seniors -- nearly derailed President Obama's health-care initiative. Some Republicans still argue that the provision would ration health care for the elderly. Does end-of-life care prolong life or does it prolong suffering? Should it be a part of health-care reform?

Avoiding the ‘D’ Word

Most people in the United State are not prepared to talk about death. Culturally, we are bombarded with ideas and images that only propagate life, seemingly ignoring death. As I watch football on Sunday afternoons, a relentless stream of commercials peddling cures to erectile dysfunction, show images of how we can continue to live life to its fullest, even as death approaches. And on the most popular medical dramas of our times, shows which utilize the intense emotions surrounding death in the medical fields, death is far from a reality. Just look back to Grey’s Anatomy from a couple of seasons ago, when a main character dies, only to be brought back to life through a twisting of plotlines.

I must also admit that religion and Christianity in particular, have not been particularly helpful in preparing people to deal and talk about death. Many churches now hold ‘Celebrations of Life’ rather than funerals. They choose to focus wholly on the person’s life, rather than acknowledge the fact that this person has just died. Even in the quiet conversations in parish halls, congregants will avoid using the ‘d’ word all together, preferring to say that someone has ‘passed on’ rather than to say that someone has died.

It is because of this cultural conditioning to avoid death, even in thought, that ‘end of life’ counseling must be included in any health reform legislation. Dying is a part of living. Unfortunately, most individuals and their families are not prepared to deal with the realities of dying on their own. They need the outside support of medical and palliative care professionals in order to help provide comfort to both the patient and their families in the midst of the stress and anxiety of death with which they are most often not prepared. As Christians, we proclaim a God who is present not only in the exhilarating moments of living, but also in the mundane and even in our dying. End of life counseling can be a source of comfort, reassurance, and presence in a situation where our cultural support leaves us standing alone. Families need this support and by providing it, we point to the God who is present and bringing comfort not only in our living but also in our dying.


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