Fear Arrived When Death Disappeared into Hospitals
Pamela D. Wilson CSA, MS, BS/BA, CG
Death, not space, as mentioned in repeats of the old television series Star Trek, is the final frontier. Death is a frontier most of us do not want to think about yet alone discuss until there is no other choice. Fear, whatever the fear, is a subject we are also uncomfortable discussing unless we are engrossed in reality television or watching scary movies that we know in our hearts and minds are not real.
Fear of death is epidemic. So much that researchers have dedicated time to research fear of death. An article published in the Chicago Tribune called Understanding Fear of Death, divides fear of death into four areas: 1) fear of pain, 2) fear of the unknown, 3) fear of non-existence, and 4) fear of eternal punishment. 1Years ago death was a public event, an experience shared by those in the communities where we were born and died. How many of you have seen old black and white photos of family members lying in caskets in private homes for viewing? There was a time, not too many years ago when loved ones died at home, in their bedroom, surrounded and cared for by family until the very end.
What happened? Hospitals changed our culture. Death disappeared into hospitals and other care institutions. Have you heard older people talk about death? Most of them are fearless, wondering why they are still around. Have you considered that this might be because they remember loved ones dying at home and were present to experience the transition? Once you have faced a fear, even something as simple as going to a movie by yourself, how afraid are you to go to a movie alone the second time; likely not at all. The unknown is scary. Experience removes or at least lessens fear.
Seeing loved ones today, in hospitals, unnaturally hooked up to beeping machines and tubing has made death something to fear. Society has allowed institutions and insurance companies to own death, making us a society uncomfortable with the final frontier. Yet the trend is reversing. Many families are considering end of life midwives, investigating green burials to avoid funeral homes, and saying no to death in medical institutions opting to make death a more personal event with family at home.
An article in the New York Times focused on this subject. 2 A family member opting for end of life care at home said, “There’s something about touching, watching, sitting with a body that lets you know the person is no longer there. We didn’t even realize how emotionally meaningful these rituals are, until we were able to care for our dying loved one.”
Health issues and end of life will arrive for all of us. What do you want? Do you imagine dying at home surrounded by loved ones or in a hospital hooked up to tubes and machines? Technology offers little comfort when it’s only goal is to extend life that has already passed from a body only preserved by a machine.
How did we lose the values and traditions of years ago? Why did we allow death to disappear into hospitals and other medical institutions? Why did we allow fear about death to become larger than life. What can we do to reverse this trend and make death personal, private and dignified?
1) Brotman, Barbara. Understanding Fear of Death. Chicago Tribune 11/20/2006.
2) Brody, Jane. End of Life Issues Need to Be Addressed. New York Times 8/17/2009,
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