There's an app that pings you several times a day with reminders of your own mortality. The takeaway: Life is short, so live well.
But is there such a thing as dying well?
Author and palliative care physician Ira Byock thinks so. As he told Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer, we tend to view death in our society through the lens of medicine, as some terrible outcome of being mortal. But it's also a time of life, he says.
"And when viewed from a broader lens of, 'this is a natural part of the human life cycle,' we can start to see within the tragedy that there are also opportunities for people to grow within themselves and together."
Read highlights from their conversation below — and click the audio player above for a longer discussion on the art of dying well, and living fully. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Cathy Wurzer: You're dealing with a medical industry and general public that say and believe that because of advances in medicine, you're going to live a really long life. And of course, the narrative is we hope you live to the end and then you just kind of fall over, and that's it. You know, I think people are afraid of the suffering part of the equation, perhaps. What of that?
Ira Byock: Well, me too. The fact is, however, that most of us will experience significant decline during the years or months or weeks before we die. I mean, you know, I used to practice emergency medicine for many years and I am still deeply enamored with the unprecedented power of medical science and technology to fight disease and to cure many conditions and to extend our lives. However, medical science has yet to make even one person immortal.
And so if we are going to give people the very best care we possibly can, we have to acknowledge that no one gets out of this one alive, and extend our human caring to the expected times of life that contain, if you will, illness, disability, physical dependence and yes, even some suffering.
Wurzer: What do you do for an individual who is unable to talk about death or dying, and has a deep deep fear of dying, even as that individual moves into the last stages of life. And they don't die well. Is there anything to be done for that individual?
Byock: Well, you know, that's a large category.
Byock: And I can't — I don't want to sound glib and say that I have magic buttons to push or medications to give or any of that. But I start by listening. If people feel that it's almost verboten to talk about dying — or you know, many people in our country and our culture have almost a superstition around talking about dying. As if, if we talk about it, we're going to invite it into our lives, we're going to allow it to happen — then I just don't go there. And instead I ask about their stories. I ask about what it's like for them to be seriously ill and have others taking care of them. And yes, I ask about their fears, what they worry about looking forward, without ever using the word death or dying.
Along the way, almost always it becomes, as our relationship builds, it becomes more approachable to acknowledge that this wonderful arc of their life, their full life, is gradually coming to an end. And I don't have to push it. I don't feel like it's my responsibility to inflict on people this notion that they're dying. Frankly, nature or their illness does that just quite well enough. It's my role to support them through this difficult time, to help them as I would somebody who I cared deeply for, because I do.
Dr. Byock will give a lecture in Bloomington on Monday night. Details are at www.mnhpc.org.