Death is often looked at as a taboo subject in our society, not something to be brought up at parties or over dinner as an avoidance of spoiling “the mood.” It’s something that we talk about in an almost hushed voice as a reverence for the end of life. Stephen Jenkins is trying to change the way we talk and look at death.
Stephen Jenkins is the subject of a 2008 Canadian documentary called “Griefwalker” and has been at the bedside of over 1,000 dying people. As the former head of the a palliative care counselling team at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, Stephen has repeatedly seen as what he calls a “a wretched anxiety and an existential terror” concerning death. We all know that death is a part of life, just as birth, but we talk about it as if it were a punishment, a bitter end.
Wrapping your head around Stephen’s views on the human condition circling death might require multiple viewings of Ian MacKenzie’s six-minute short, but the man is certainly onto something. Maybe facing our own mortailty and embracing it will fuel ourselves and the lives we lead more.
Take the story of Anna Enquist from this New York Times piece from 1988, for example. A week after Anna’s 80th birthday party she learned she had ovarian cancer and would have to undergo major surgery. Regarding her previous health problems, high blood pressure, age, and a heart condition it was going to be more than a risky surgery. The week leading up to the surgery Anna spent getting her affairs in order, double checking her will, and left a note to her kids telling them about repairs around the hours, bills coming in the mail, and how much she loved them. She was preparing to die. But Anna didn’t die, she came out of the surgery and resolved to do everything possible to rid herself of the cancer. She was determined to go on with life, and at age 83 seemed at ease talking openly about the possibility of her illness recurring. She embraces the imminent time when death will come and thus more openly embraces living her life.
Most of us won’t choose how or when we die, but we can choose not to surrender to death, but to embrace it and enrich our lives through it. There’s power for each of us in the outlook of Stephen Jenkins, it’s all in how we choose to perceive death. “Death is not an option, but an obligation. To embrace it, including the suffering, and do it well is elemental to our work here.”