One of the joys of being a hospice volunteer is that sometimes it turns everything I know upside down. People who are on the edge of death see things that I haven’t yet seen. And sometimes I get a window of opportunity to learn from them.
A case in point. Often when people are diagnosed with cancer, they tell me that they will do everything they can to stay alive. For example, a friend who was told she only has a few months left to live told me, “I am not a quitter.”
I hear that a lot. Family and friends feel the need to encourage the sick to “not give up.” Patients reassure family and friends by telling them that they are fighters and will give it everything they got.
I wonder if we tell someone to give it the good fight because it makes us feel like we are doing something. It creates an illusion of control when feeling powerless. On the patients’ side of the equation, staying in the fight even when they are miserable and fighting against the odds, can feel like a huge contribution towards reassuring others, even if it goes against their sense of what is right for themselves.
The big problem with this is that people sometimes feel blindsided when death comes. “But he was fighting it.” Or, “Maybe she died because I didn’t encourage her enough.”
I think the problem is with the word ‘quitting.’ There is the kind of quitting that involves giving up. It is passive. But letting go and taking charge of the kind of death you want is entirely different. Dying with dignity is not quitting; it is an opportunity to embrace death, and in doing so, embrace life. It bestows a legacy of bravery and peace to those we leave behind.