Starting on the 10th of January when British singer, star, and trailblazer David Bowie (69) made his final transition, the world has been seeing quite a few celebrities make their exit from this earth: The revered British actor Alan Rickman (69) and musician Rene Angelil (73), Celine Dion’s husband (and manager), both died of cancer on January 14th. Then, Glenn Frey (67), the Eagles’ songwriter, guitarist and founding member made his transition on Monday, January 18th due to complications from several illnesses.
All of these Transitions, especially coming all at once, have got our attention. And in some cases, they have been helping us think about and reflect on death in some new ways. David Bowie’s death in particular, one in which Bowie clearly made some deliberate preparations, has clearly been assisting those persons already in the midst of dealing with end of life issues.
A Daily Mirror article published an article on January 18 titled “How David Bowie inspired a cancer patient at the end of her life – read doctor’s letter in full” (for full article, see: http://tinyurl.com/z4ukfdh) had a letter penned by Dr. Mark Taubert, a palliative care consultant at Vlindre NHS Trust in Cardiff.
In his moving letter, the end of life care expert Dr. Taubert told David Bowie that his death had sparked a “weighty” discussion with a dying woman in the hospital. He added that it had also opened up the possibility for some patients so that they could die at home, rather than in an institution. He wrote on the blog page of a British Medical Journal: “We discussed your death and your music, and it got us talking about numerous weighty subjects, that are not always straightforward to discuss with someone facing their own demise. … In fact, your story became a way for us to communicate very openly about death, something many doctors and nurses struggle to introduce as a topic of conversation.”
Dr, Taubert also wrote in his letter to Bowie that many of the people he talks with as part of his job “think that death predominantly happens in hospitals, in very clinical settings, but I presume you chose home and planned this in some detail. … This is one of our aims in palliative care, and your ability to achieve this may mean that others will see it as an option they would like fulfilled.”
These endings and reflections are reminding me of a powerful book that I found very meaningful several years ago, by a young Jewish scholar named Erica Brown. Her book is titled: Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death (2013), and it is a remarkable, practical book covering a wide range of topics related to death and our culture (more at Erica Brown’s link).
One of the things I especially liked about this book, besides how practical and full of many stories and aspects of life and death it incorporated, is that Brown critiques Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.
She says that the first four states of grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression – actually all come under the one category, “Denial.” She then states that the last stage, Acceptance, needs to actually be called “Resignation,” not Acceptance, because usually people in our culture are not very good at accepting death. Rather, we become resigned to it. I believe this to be true.
But then she adds that there’s one more category that needs to be added: That of “Inspiration.” When someone is able to say the words “I need to be prepared” for death, then this intention gives the person Inspiration – in other words, “permission to love more fully, to say the words they’ve wanted to say for a lifetime, to repair and heal troubled relationships, and to entertain a range of ethereal and spiritual thoughts and actions often previously closed off, sealed, or masked by the pragmata of everyday anxieties. … Inspiration is an admission of possibility. It is the last gift we give the living.” (p. 8)
I like this concept of bringing Inspiration into the topic of death! And I like to think that this is at least in part what I help people do, by writing about death, grief, change, transitions and endings of all kinds, calling people’s attention to these sorts of things that we’d normally rather not focus on.