Monday, June 29, 2015

Death Avoidance

We have a serious problem on our hands.  It’s been around for decades, but it seems to be getting worse.  Our problem? Death avoidance.   

As a society, we keep getting farther away from the reality that death is inevitable.  Death has gone from being something visible and an accepted part of life, to something invisible and far too easy to deny.

In the 1800s just as photography was coming into existence it was common to have a post mortem photograph taken just after someone died.  These photographs were displayed in the home as a constant reminder of the loss.  Death was something that happened in the home.  Generations lived near each other, so it was common to have grandchildren present during the last days, as well as in the home around the deceased’s body during the day or two of the vigil and wake before burial.

Even the funeral processions were more visible.  As loved ones walked behind a horse drawn carriage carrying the coffin in a slow mournful way, there was no escaping the knowledge of who had died, and all could see the family mourn openly. 

Mourning in the 19th century also lent itself to something more visible. Loved ones dressed in black for a period of months to years.  This custom allowed others to be reminded of death’s presence on a daily basis.

In our modern sophistication, we have drastically altered most of these past traditions. We don’t always live near family, and our elderly often are hidden away in nursing homes for their last months and years.  Death occurs not in the home, but in hospitals and long term care facilities.   Our distaste of death has seeped into funerals, which now are called a “celebration of life” with embalming practices to attempt to make the deceased look as alive as possible.  We aren’t allowed to grieve for long, it’s too uncomfortable to face death.  Mourners are subtly pushed to ‘get over’ their grief quickly and friends prefer not talking about it. 

The word death itself is greeted as a morbid term.  We use phrases such as “he passed away” or “he went to be with Jesus” to make it easier to say.  I’ve seen it done in my own field.  People don’t want to say ‘hospice’ because of its association with death, and prefer using the term ‘palliative care’ to push the reality of dying farther away.  Another subtle trend is to use the phrase end of life, instead of saying someone is near death. The switch from life to death, diminishes our discomfort with death.

Recently I’ve had people say that even  ‘end of life’ is too harsh.  Should we come up with a new word for that period of life at the end?  Perhaps we could call it the blue period.  That way we cannot only avoid the word death but the word end as well.

What harm has our denial caused? Increased futile and sometimes painful treatments at the end, increased fear surrounding death and diminished meaning of life to name a few.  We must remember that it is the realization of our mortality that gives us a reason to live. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Art of Dying Well

In the success driven society that we live in, I’m surprised there is so little out there about a successful dying experience.  There are hundreds of books about how to be a successful parent, a successful spouse, a successful employee or employer.  There are success how to’s for education, healthcare, businesses, nonprofits and churches. 

Likely, this absence of material about successful dying comes from the link of success to achievement.  No one feels confident linking death with achievement.  However, what about the idea of dying well? Is this something individually or culturally we should strive for?

Dying well sits more comfortably with us, as we can generalize a bit more about what dying well means.  Usually it’s when there is an absence of suffering, when the timing coincides with loved ones presence, when symptoms are controlled and the environment is peaceful; things that at first glance seem out of the control of the person who is dying.

While we may hesitate to discuss what dying well means, historically this was not so.  In the 1400’s at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church a booklet was published called “Ars Moriendi” (The Art of Dying) and was the quintessential book on preparing to die, and dying well.  It was widely circulated, with over 100 editions and translations into most European languages.

The book spiritualized dying, describing five temptations people dying face.  Those temptations were lack of faith, despair, impatience, vanity and greed.  The way to die well, then, was to fight these temptations with their opposites.  Dying well meant having faith, hope, patience, humility and generosity. 

In the 1400’s the availability of medications for symptom management was non-existent.  This booklet served to place reason for many of the experiences people witnessed in the death of a loved one.  Without an understanding of terminal delirium and restlessness, it was easier to claim impatience as the cause and pray for patience. 

In our modern day, medications and scientific understanding help us recognize and treat the physical aspects to aid in dying well.  There is more, however, that may be in our control than we’d like to think.

Suffering, despite what we may believe, is not an easily medicated symptom.  Since suffering originates from the mind, from experiences, and specifically beliefs and thoughts about those experiences, the control rests solely on the individual.  To die well, without suffering, may incorporate some of the very things this 600-year-old book spoke of. 

I have seen despair resolve when the focus of regrets moves towards the hope of resolution.  I have seen vanity melt away with the courage to humbly ask for forgiveness.   I have seen the suffering that stems from the greed and self- focus of ‘why me?’ disappear with a shift to gratitude for the life one has lived. 

What does it mean to you to die well? It’s probably too uncomfortable to equate dying well with successful dying, but let’s at least be aware that some of the suffering we all want to avoid at the end can be dealt with while we are living.

Photo:  Master E.S. 1450 "Temptation of Avarice" 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Preparing for the Extremes

When we turn on the news or listen to the radio to hear what the meteorologist is predicting the weather will be, we don’t usually call this ‘the day’s weather prognosis’. We use the term forecast, and yet a forecast is essentially the same concept of what a prognosis is. 

Predicting the weather and predicting the outcome of a life limiting disease may carry the same foundation, but they differ vastly on their accuracy.  Weather forecasting has an overall accuracy for temperature determination (give or take a few degrees) of 85%.  A medical prognosis, however, regarding how long someone has to live (give or take a few days or weeks) is usually only accurate 20% of the time, and actually 65% of the time doctors overestimate prognosis by a factor of 3-5.

Yet so often patients who have a terminal disease leave the doctor having latched onto a prognosis as if it’s as guaranteed as an expiration date on grocery goods. 

Many factors go into misinterpretations of prognosis.  I’ve mentioned overestimation, but research also shows that the longer a doctor has taken care of a patient or the more they know that patient, the more they overestimate. Besides overestimation, another problem is how doctors even approach prognosis.  Often times they will use something called the median survival rate when discussing prognosis.  Patients get this confused with average. Median, however, is just the middle number of a range.  If a doctor says, the median survival is 6 months, that means half of the people with that disease die before 6 months. What median doesn’t tell us is, of those people who died before 6 months, did most of them die in 1 month or 5 months?  That’s a big difference!

One thing doctors don’t do well is to discuss the worst-case scenario along with the best-case scenario.  They assume it’s too depressing to talk about bad outcomes with the patient. Also, sometimes during prognosis talks as issue is that patients are shocked, retreat into their brains, and can’t listen to the prognosis. One suggestion that can help with both these problems is to have the doctor actually write out the worst-case prognosis, the best-case prognosis and the most likely prognosis. 
What can be very challenging is that many prognoses have a very wide range of possibilities.  Some cancers carry the possibility of dying in 6 months or living out the rest of your life essentially cured.  It’s the same as if a meteorologist announced that for tomorrow’s forecast the possibility was for snow, or maybe rain, but also could be hot and sunny.  If you were traveling to a location like that, you’d pack for the extremes, wouldn’t you?  This is how we need to treat prognosis as well.  Prepare for the extremes.

A good prognostic conversation should do this; explore the extremes so that you can plan.  The next time you hear a prognosis think of it as a forecast, but one with only 20% accuracy.  Also, be sure to ask for the worst-case and best-case extremes, it will help you prepare for the journey.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Greatest Gift? Granting Permission

Certain things are just universal.  All humans need nutrition. All humans need hydration. All humans need air. There really is no argument to these basic needs for existence. Once our physical needs are met, the priority becomes filling our emotional needs.  At the heart of our emotional needs is the desire to feel safe and secure.  As children, we are taught that a key way to feel safe and secure is through the approval of our parents, and as we age, we become conditioned to seek out approval of others as well.  

The degree of power to which we give others approval of us varies widely and is based on things such as personality, upbringing, and life experiences.  One thing there is no need to debate, approval of others feels good and is validating.

We know that approval is tied in to safety and security, so you can imagine during the end of life, if a person isn’t feeling safe and secure, they will seek out approval even more.   The ways someone seeks approval can be subtle or direct.  Some take medications they don’t want in an effort to get the approval of their doctor or family members.  Others get out of bed when they don’t feel like it, or eat a few bites of a meal despite having no appetite.  I see patients entertain guests when they’d rather be sleeping, still seeking the approval of others. 

Other times approval seeking comes with stories from the past as people use the narrative of their lives to gain validation.  Amazingly, some even prolong their dying as a means of gaining the approval of family members who don’t want them to die.

Since approval is a universal emotional need, a helpful thing family and friends can give at the end of life is the gift of approval.  The easiest way to think about how to give approval is to give permission.  Permission removes any guilt associated with seeking approval and fear of disappointing those we love.  Give someone the permission to be tired, to not eat, to be worried, to be angry, to refuse treatment, to feel sad, or ultimately to die.

It’s not just the patient that needs permission during end of life situations. Caregivers and family members need permission as well.  They too are seeking approval in an insecure and unsafe reality.  One of the greatest areas caregivers need permission is in letting go of the caregiving to step back into the role of spouse/child/friend.   It is impossible to provide both total physical care as well as emotional care towards the end of life. Society unfortunately gives approval to the more tangible physical care, despite the more important value that comes with emotional care that only family and loved ones can provide.  Often it takes a hospice team to grant that permission.

Just like with patients, we can be responsible for granting approval to caregivers and loved ones. By giving them permission to be where they are, whether angry, sad, worried, not wanting to say goodbye or hoping it was all over.

Permission is a simple way to give approval with untold benefits for those around us.

Optimism and Pessimism

As a parent, one of the incredible mysteries has been to watch each of my children come into this world with a predetermined personality.  Our parenting style seems to have little effect on these inborn traits.  We know that our ultimate personality is a grand mix of what we come into the world with, our genes, and the life experiences we have.   One such nuanced trait that is both nature and nurture based is the optimism/pessimism scale.

You can surely place yourself on this scale as you read this. Maybe you’ve been called an idealist, or negative or someone who always looks on the bright side. It’s important to realize that both optimism and pessimism have pluses and minuses, especially with end of life issues.

These traits in general are things that help us manage our expectations of the future.  An optimist will assume a positive result, while a pessimist expects the negative.  

The way we tint our vision of events, whether rose or blue tinted, is also a way to manage our emotions related to these events.  Optimism acts to buffer anxiety and can raise us up and out of a gloomy reality.  Pessimism also protects our emotions.  By expecting the worst, we insulate ourselves from disappointment and create a possibility for a pleasant surprise if things turn out better.

One way to consider the optimism/pessimism concept is to consider it as a fluid scale. We slide toward one side or the other depending on if we are thinking about work, relationships, world events, etc.  Alternatively, we may consider ourselves realists, always right in the middle, finding a good mix of hoping for the best, while still preparing for a worst-case scenario.

Knowing that these traits are inherently protective, it’s no surprise that with end of life issues I often encounter the extremes.  Moreover, what I notice is like most things in life, it’s at the far extremes that these traits move from being healthy to unhealthy. 

I’m all for thinking positive, but when Mrs. W was confronted with her new cancer diagnosis and refused to start treatment because it was “surely a mistake, I most definitely do not have cancer” her extreme optimism is now be labeled denial.  While denial will certainly protect ones emotional well-being, it does little to protect the physical reality of disease.

Mrs. W’s case is extreme, but there are more subtle ways that extreme optimism causes harm.  Unfortunately, it is quite common for people on hospice to put off important conversations, financial decisions, and delay dealing with things they should because their optimism clouds the reality of how serious their condition is or how much little time they have left.

On the other end is extreme pessimism.  Mr. H refused starting a therapy that would add both years and quality to his life because “What’s the point! Now that I have cancer, I’m done trying to live!”  We sometimes label extreme forms of pessimism as depression.  When someone is paralyzed with inaction because of their negative attitude, it may protect them from being disappointed but does nothing to improve reality.

It’s nearly impossible to move someone from the extremes at the end of life. Understanding that a lifetime of personality is at play may at least garnish some compassion. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Talking to kids about death

It’s difficult for adults to talk to one another about death.  The topic makes us uncomfortable.  Despite this fact, most of us will muster up the courage and have these hard conversations when the need arises.  There is something, however, far more difficult than talking to our peers about death and that is talking to children about death.

 Parents will have memories of questions kids have posed about death when a pet has died or bird is found deceased outdoors.  These awkward moments force us as adults to simplify a complex concept on the fly, and usually unprepared, at best we stumble our way through.

What do we do when it’s not a pet; when the impending death of a parent or grandparent looms?  

That answer is as complex as the topic of death itself.  There are some basic facts however, that help guide us.  One, we know that avoiding the topic of death is harmful.  Kids are very observant, and usually have already encountered death on T.V. or have seen dead insects.  Though it may feel like we are protecting children by not talking about it, research shows it creates much more problems for the child.

It is also not a good idea to force information that may be too complex on a child.  The best approach is a balance between avoidance and confrontation.  The goal is to be honest, sensitive, and approachable.

Another mistake adults often make is to use euphemisms when talking to kids.  Children are literal, so when an adult says, “Your Grandma is in a better place now,” Kids literally think Grandma might be at Disney World.  The phrase “he just went to sleep” is also very scary for a child to hear.  Children will become afraid of sleeping themselves, assuming they too might never wake up.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that the developmental stage of the child is important to understanding the concept of death.  For instance, kids ages 2-4 don’t grasp the permanence of death.  Death is temporary to them, and they will continue to expect the deceased to come back.  This age group may react to death with separation anxiety, withdrawing, regression or confusion.

Kids ages 4-7 often have magical thinking. This group will often feel responsible for the death and may connect something completely unrelated to it.  For instance, a fight at school gets linked to the reason they think their dad is dying.  This group may appear unaffected and unemotional after someone dies.  Because of the tendency to feel guilty for the death, this age group needs good communication and openness.

Once kids are 7-10 they begin to realize death is not reversible. This age group is very curious about death and may ask insensitive questions. They can view death as a punishment and will often start worrying that others around them may die, or that they themselves will die soon.

People often ask if children should visit someone who is dying. The best advice is to leave the decision up to the child. If they are interested, they should visit with thorough preparation on what they will see when they arrive.  They should be given permission to leave at any time.  Finally, children should never be forced or made to feel guilty if they don’t want to participate.

Even though death is a difficult topic for adults, if we approach it the right way with kids, the foundation for healing and understanding for a lifetime can be created. 

*Photo is a screenshot from the movie "Is Anybody There?"

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Oregon's Death With Dignity Act

If you’ve been listening to the news you will have undoubtedly heard rumblings about something called the “Death with Dignity Act” and a 29 year old woman named Brittany Maynard with terminal cancer who plans to ingest a lethal medication next month to ensure that she dies peacefully, with family surrounding her.

This concept of physician-assisted suicide is very controversial, and something we should all be aware of for the sake of conversation as well as to prepare for future debates on this issue.

First the facts.  There are three states that allow for physician-assisted suicide:  Oregon, Washington and Vermont.  Oregon was the first, enacting the Death with Dignity Act in 1997.  The DWDA allows residents of Oregon 18 years or older who have been certified by two physicians to have a terminal prognosis of less than 6 months and who are communicative and of sound mind, to obtain a lethal prescription from a physician which they may ingest on their own accord with the specific purpose of causing death.

Last year 122 prescriptions were written in Oregon.  From the data, usually between 60-70% of those written a prescription will actually use it to cause death.  The prescription is usually a barbiturate and data so far has shown it has taken between 5 minutes and nearly 6 hours to die after ingestion.
Brittany Maynard is just one of many who have chosen to die in this way. So why all the media attention now?  For one, Brittany is only 29 years old.  The average age for DWDA patients last year was 71.  She also has made her story public, posting a video online as well as doing interviews.  However, it’s more than her age and the media attention, I think her story strikes a nerve and forces us to address common fears that surround the idea of death.

Cut away all of the hype, emotions, and narrative and at the core, what death with dignity is really about is autonomy and control.  In fact, 93% of DWDA patients say loss of autonomy is a reason they chose to end their life.  Other factors DWDA patients mention as reasons for participating is loss of quality of life and loss of dignity.

I find it interesting that these are issues hospice is designed to address.  The idea behind hospice is to increase quality of life, improve dignity and add autonomy.  However, what hospice will not do is interfere with the natural process at hand by hastening death, as the DWDA allows.
Ms. Maynard said in an interview that it is a “relief that I don’t have to die the way it’s been described to me”.  As a hospice physician who has cared for innumerable patients with her type of cancer it appears she’s misinformed.  With aggressive symptom management and all the tools hospice provides, the natural progression of the disease and dying should be peaceful.

Her statement though reminds us of what the underlying fear is shadowing the autonomy, dignity, and quality of life concepts surrounding the DWDA, which is the fear of suffering.  Why have a prescription that gives you the ultimate autonomy over death unless the threat of the loss of that autonomy is causing suffering?

As with most heated debates, this one comes down to values.  What has higher value, life or autonomy?  Moreover, should suffering be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of life itself?  Your answer to these questions will place you on one side or the other of this controversial debate.