Let’s Talk about Death

1785.

The room number flashed on my screen. As the elevator slowly climbed, I made a silent assessment of how I would likely react.

Only 24 hours ago, I bid farewell to someone for one final time in the same room.

I stepped inside, only to be greeted with such an overwhelming amount of hope that it’s almost suffocating.

…Here we go again. The frailty of life is always the bigger picture, although each story unfolds differently. In fact, some of them won’t end in death. Well, not yet.

Whenever someone died, I like to give myself time to reflect on each person’s history and legacy. My meticulous mental calendar does not give preference to birthdays over deaths. I allow myself to feel sad, happy, disappointed, inspired… whatever it may be. That’s how I learn, grow, and “move on.”

I am comfortable with the way I deal with death and dying. What I am uncomfortable with is our healthcare system’s relative lack of competence in dealing with death besides fighting it, frowning upon it, or forgetting about it. It’s probably easier for those of us in the “softer” speciality areas to reach out. Anecdotally, I seldom hear surgeons discuss the death of a patient, unless it is the technical aspect of things. A recent review highlights how little systematic research has been done in the past 2 decades to help physicians deal with grief: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3366454/

While everyone deals with issues of death and dying differently, how we cope may indirectly compromise job satisfaction and quality of care. Just because one has seen thousands of deaths doesn’t mean one is now an “expert” in coping with death. Within healthcare settings, it’d be nice to encourage ongoing death education and grief support to staff at all levels of care.

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About C

If you consider volunteering at a luncheon for older adults as my first exposure to the field, I have been in geropsychology for at least twenty years. As family, friend, volunteer, trainee, and professional, I have found myself in adult day care centers, senior centers, senior living facilities, nursing homes, medical and psychiatric wards, hospice, and personal homes of older adults. Wherever I go, be it an orphanage, a museum, a prison, an airport, or a random corner in the neighborhood, issues related to aging and mental health often come to mind. I used to think that I could make a difference only if I became a top-notch researcher, educator, or clinician. As I continue to follow this meandering path, it dawns on me that as a nobody in the field, I can still add my light to the sum of light by sharing what I know. Over the years, I have "converted" a few very dedicated individuals to focus on aging-related work within their respective disciplines and encouraged a handful more to stay in this field despite its winding course. I believe by bringing aging and mental health issues to the foreground, we will amass a stronger force to promote advocacy, research, and quality care.
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