Over the past few days and weeks, end-of-life issues have surrounded me. A wonderful blogger friend of mine is having problems; on my wife’s side of the family, several of her relatives are gravely ill and not expected to live very long; a former colleague of mine took his own life just a few days ago.
Although I never got along well with him, I can’t stop thinking about his suicide. He was a deeply religious person who continually spoke about following the tenets of the Torah. For a person who tried scrupulously to follow the rules (he thought) set by God I can’t understand how he could do such a thing. What could trump a deeply religious person’s beliefs and daily devotion to what he believed to be the will of God and cause him to commit such an act forbidden by Jewish law? There are a couple of possibilities: 1) he wasn’t really sincere about his beliefs in the first place – which is not for me to say; 2) something stronger than his religious beliefs drove him to act in the way he did.
Being someone who leans toward biological determinism, one answer to this question is somehow, his state of mind – as determined by thought patterns, chemical balance and involvement of the emotional circuits in his brain, made life unbearable for him and caused him to abandon what was the most important thing – his devotion to living by the Jewish law. This is such a shame.
Thinking about mortality
One of my favorite quotes is, I believe, from Woody Allen: “I don’t mind dying I just don’t want to be there at the time.” That sums it up for me. The concept of not existing is interesting to contemplate, but experiencing the transition from life to no life is daunting and frightening. I remember being a child wondering how people could live from day to day with the full knowledge that they would eventually die. No matter what one does in life, I thought, in the end it is death and nothingness. It was very difficult to put that question out of my mind. I wasn’t that happy a child.
Thoughts while dying
I wonder what a person who is dying thinks, if one indeed does think during the process of dying. How could one even articulate one’s state of mind in that condition?
Dying by fading away gradually is different than being in pain while dying. The saying, “I was so sick, I was afraid I wasn’t going to die,” is one of those folk sayings that address the aspect of suffering. The idea is that dying, as frightening as it may be, is preferable to unbearable physical pain.
The Kübler-Ross model proposes five emotional stages a person goes through when faced with impending death: 1) denial; 2) anger; 3) bargaining; 4) depression; 5) acceptance.  I wonder how this applies to suicide. I have a feeling that anger and/or depression are the primary factors that cause a people to end their lives.
How does the topic of dying relate to the mission of my blog?
The common denominator between the subjects of dying and autism is the seeming impossibility of communicating states of mind in either case. For instance, I have no way of knowing what my autistic, nonverbal, low-functioning brother is thinking or if he thinks at all; similarly, there is no way to communicate what it is like to die. What happens to the state of a dying person’s mind? Is it pleasant? Is it walking toward the light? Is it an unspeakably horrible panic? There is no way for a living person to know.