Perceptions of death and dying and the corresponding rhetoric   3 comments

What if we saw death as the beginning of a grand adventure? An occasion to celebrate, and rejoice? What if we saw it as a liberation? A graduation to something much, much better? Perhaps there is even a spiritual ecstasy in dying that we, the living, know nothing about. Would it be easier to talk about? Would the language we use even be the same? These were a few questions that ran through my mind as I read Segal’s Chapter 5 on the rhetoric of death and dying. After all, if everything that makes up our world, our bodies, our consciousness and our sensory perceptions is energy, and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, we must go somewhere.

For most of us, dying is a very scary thing. What we see when something or someone ‘dies’ appears horrible to us, we the still ‘living.’ At different times in life, we are sure to witness this mortifying spectacle of that which was once filled with life, that we may have known and loved, transfigured into some grotesque inanimate representation of the former, perhaps seemingly wrenching in anguish and terror as a result of some trauma, and then, gone forever. As a society, we fight desperately to keep people alive, even when death is clearly an individual’s wish (Segal, pg. 96; pg. 102). Perhaps, in our blindness, we desperately want to keep people from making that final return to a loving God? Or, from starting a new life without us? It seems interesting that, while some abhor the idea of dying, certain types of people quickly come to terms with its prognosis, and then actually look forward to it – or at the very least, are enveloped in an inner peace and serenity about it. While those that do seem to want to die, are the very ones, whose will others are fighting hardest to thwart. Of course, I’m not suggesting this is always the case, and the reading makes this clear as there are examples of dialogue where medical professionals are considering and asking family members what they think the patient would want (Segal, pg. 108). Yet, if family members (or patients themselves) still perceive a ‘right answer’ from the perspective of the medical professionals, the outcome might be all the same (Segal, pg. 96-97; pg. 109).

It seems to me that two different types of rhetoric are in order – one for the dying, and one for the associated family members and loved ones. For the loved ones, they are losing someone, and the need to keep them alive despite their suffering may be a form of selfishness or ownership, disguised as compassion. For the dying, their wish to die may be a form of selflessness and grace, perceived as despondency, or worse, selfishness. Moreover, when a family member or loved one does start to see the light, as it were, and help their dying loved one along, they may face an even greater push-back from medical professionals who have taken an oath to keep people alive at all costs (Segal, pg. 98). As we read though, other countries, such as the Netherlands, might be ushering in a new way of thinking (pg. 102).

There really does seem to be a paradox in everything related to human perceptions and understanding for one willing to make the effort to get at the Truth. But, our prevailing paradigms do change, perhaps even as it relates to death. It would seem to me, however, that before we could teach a medical professional to talk about death and dying differently, we would need to help him or her see death differently.

So, my question is: Is this really a question of the appropriate rhetoric to apply to an inevitable event to be characterized as tragedy and loss, or might we begin to suggest new ways of perceiving death that will change the rhetoric in and of itself?

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Posted September 12, 2010 by jardaneh in Uncategorized

3 responses to “Perceptions of death and dying and the corresponding rhetoric

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  1. Great post. I also felt a strong connection to Segal’s “Rhetoric of Death and Dying,” and couldn’t agree with you more that our cultural response to death is at the heart of the issue.

    One institution that is quietly changing perspectives is the Hospice movement. The difference between witnessing my father’s passing in a hospital and my mother’s death in a Hospice facility were from one side of the universe to the other. In the hospital, death was not even mentioned; we all knew it was coming (he had colon cancer), but it was taboo to speak (similar to Segal’s experience). Thus, we all suffered in silence, my father most of all.

    Hospice brought not only a discourse of the stages of death, but an environment that encouraged family to stay and keep company. We were encouraged to talk to my mother, though she was in a coma, and to touch and comfort her. Yes, it was sad and painful, but it was the most peaceful way of saying goodbye to a loved one that I can imagine.

    I believe what Segal cites from Kelner and Bourgeault to be an important factor: physician’s are in the life-saving business, and death represents failure on their part (100). So maybe that why Hospice works–you go in knowing that doctors will not be coming in to save anyone’s life, and that, if not the patient, then the body will decide.

  2. It’s interesting you mention the hospice. Recently, my aunt’s mother in law passed away from cancer. It was a really long, drawn out process though because she refused to go into a hospice. To her going into a hospice meant giving up. It meant she resigned herself to dying. And til the very end (even though there was no chance of recovery) she did not want to give up hope, so to speak, by going to a hospice. Instead, she had extensive at-home care from her two sons and frequent hospital visits.

    It’s a terrible thing to wonder— but I’m wondering if the times she had care in the hospital whether the lack of ‘death-talk’ made her more susceptible to a false sense of hope? I also wonder if an unrealistic strive for miracle hope to prevail is solely a human trait or an American thing.

    —Genevieve

  3. Segal’s qualitative study certainly supports the idea of needing two different types of consensual rhetorical exchange.

    I like the way your question points out the assumption in Segal’s question while suggesting another line of rhetorical intervention.

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