Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Death and 2016. What have we learned? What can we do?

F*ck you 2016 is a common sentiment in my Facebook feed these days.  All related to untimely deaths of the icons of our youth.  Prince.  David Bowie. George Michael, and today, everybody's favorite Princess, Carrie Fischer.  The list goes on...

2016 seems to be the year of celebrity deaths, or, perhaps, for those of us who grew up in the 70's and 80's, a bad year with a simply a heightened awareness of how death can strike at any time, and perhaps, an unwanted focus our own mortality?  Heck, many of these icons were in the 50's or early 60's.  A mere 5-10 years older than many of us who grew up listening to their music and watching their movies.  But we're still young!  Wait... so were they!

Every year, tribute reels are made to honor those celebrities and icons who have died.  Every year, it seems, we forget how much those who died 1, 2, or even 5 or 10 years ago impacted us, or a different generation.  It always seems like the current year is the worst, taking the most beloved of legends, most of them far too young and far too soon.

I totally understand how the death of a musician or actor whose work you adored and followed for years, can be a shock and create a feeling of sadness and an honest to goodness grief reaction, even though you never met them. And of course, although your experience is nowhere near that of their loved ones, it's still real. Many of them were larger than life and their music and their movies shaped who we are to some extent. We associate emotions, life events, and physical activities with them and their craft.  It's normal to feel some sadness at their passing.

I find it fascinating how the prevailing sentiment is anger at the calendar year, as if 2016 were the grim reaper itself. Maybe it's because people are unfamiliar with the feelings around loss, anger being a common one of course, and so they throw it out there on social media.  Followed closely by sadness, and reminiscing.  Posting their favorite songs or movie scenes, lyrics or quotes.  Sharing memories.  Writing beautiful tributes. These are great examples of healthy grieving though, whether people realize it or not. There is comfort in knowing you are not alone in how you feel.

I just wish everyone got the chance to see and hear these things while they were still alive.  Celebrity or not.  Seems like it would be more meaningful.  Especially if the person you so adored and will now miss, knew all that before they died. Still, it's a comfort for their family to see the outpouring of well-wishes and memorial tributes.

It would be a shame if it ended there.  With a social media post.  For there are lessons to be learned, choices WE can make now, so that we might not meet the same early fate.  OR, if we do, or rather, WHEN we do, we are more prepared.  Our families would thank us for that.  It lessens the burden on them.

So what can we learn from the deaths of so many icons of our youth?

  • Death is a mystery.  One's life can end quite suddenly and unexpectedly.  And that happens more than you think.  
  • Death doesn't care who you are or what you do.  It can happen to a celebrity, your neighbor, or someone in your family equally.  You can have the best medical care in the world, or appear to be healthy and vibrant, and still die unexpectedly.  You could be the sickest person, who "should" have died years ago, and yet, hang on well into your 8th or 9th decade.  Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to it.  At least not on the surface. 
  • Prepare the appropriate documents now.  Health Care Proxy, Power of Attorney, life insurance, Will (especially if you have kids).  They are not hard to do, can be done online or with an attorney, but are so very important and not having one can make it a living hell for those left behind, with the state often determining how your assets are distributed, which may not be the way you wanted it and with the added cost of probate court.  Consider having those who are elderly or terminally ill pre-pay their funeral expenses (average funeral cost is about $6-8K)
  • Given we are not guaranteed a tomorrow, or even another hour, perhaps we should try to treat every day as if it might be our last.  Say I love you.  Don't hold grudges.  Forgive.  Pay it forward.  Choose love, not hate.  Spend quality time with your family and friends.  Live with no regrets.  If you can't say something nice, don't say it at all.  Give to others:  time, caring, words of encouragement and support, love, meet their needs.
  • Don't fear death.  It's going to come, one day or another, to all of us.  Prepare for it.  Talk about it.  Share your wishes with your family/friends.  CPR or no?  Breathing or feeding tube?  Burial or cremation?  Calling hours or a party? Donations in your memory to a favorite charity? What would be important to you in your last days/hours if you had that luxury?  Who would you want with you?  Who don't you want with you?  In a perfect world, how would you want to die?  
  • Be honest about the circumstances of a death when it happens.  So many people withhold cause of death when it was due to causes associated with stigma like suicide, drug overdose, murder, or a communicable disease, especially a sexually transmitted one.  If we talked about these things, if we knew about them, we could help both the person and their families better cope, and maybe, just maybe, help to break the stigma and save lives...
  • Realize that while sometimes, we have no idea what causes an otherwise healthy person to just up and die, many of the icons lost this year (and probably every year) had histories of admitted drug abuse.  Drugs mess you up.  Inside and out.  How badly depends on the drug(s) used and how long they were used.  They can damage your heart and your brain and have long term residual health impacts years after you stop.  So maybe that heart attack was not such a surprise after all, people just don't come with expiration dates.
What else can we do to help others?
  • Know the signs of a heart attack or stroke.  Take them seriously, in yourself or someone else. When in doubt, call 911.  IF you wait, thinking it's "nothing" or "indigestion" or "something you ate" you or your loved one could wake up dead.  ER's are no fun, but neither are funerals.  
  • Learn CPR and first aid.  Know where to find AED's and how to use them (the machines walk you through it, it's easy).  CPR and AED's save lives.  While not every life will be able to be saved, no lives will be saved if no one does CPR or uses an AED if available.  Everyone should know how to save a life!!
  • If you know someone who is struggling with depression, mental illness, drugs or alcohol, a chronic illness or chronic pain, reach out to them.  Offer to listen, to help, to check in on them. Call them out and show them you care. Know the signs of suicide, know where to get help, and help them get that help.  Far too often, friends and even family only learn of one's struggles with those demons after they have died.  
  • Be the change!  Honor the lives of your favorite celebrity by learning CPR in their honor, donating time or dollars to a charity related to their cause of death or one they supported, whatever resonates with you.
2017 is mere days away.  What will your resolution be?  Might it be to learn CPR?  To reach out to friends who seem to be struggling?  To say "yes" to family more often?  To vow to be positive instead of negative in your social media posts and interactions with others?  To take that dream vacation? To live even one day as if it's your last to give you perspective and insight on what's *really* important to you?  

Here's to a happy, healthy, joyous and peaceful New Year for all.