Narratives Matter, Beginning to End

On the heels of a recent discussion on changing the Narrative of Cancer as a means to enable better communication and understanding with regard to the hundreds of cancer variants, I came across a very interesting article on a closely related topic: changing the Narrative of Dying. Far from being a depressing or downbeat approach, the article discusses the need for reevaluating our collective understanding of the “end of life” process in order to facilitate a healthier and happier means for saying our goodbyes without forgetting that, until the last moment, we are all still living and participating in this world. It touches on some important ideas, pivoting about the notion that our system, our society, marginalizes and fears death and, more specifically, the process of dying. Yet, death is as much a part of our existence as birth.

So what is it about our culture that imbues so much negativity on our perception and approach to end-of-life issues? I don’t ask this question as a person who considers himself terminal. As I sit at my desk, imbibing on a dark chocolate orange and enjoying a cool evening breeze, I feel as alive and immortal as I did years prior to my cancer diagnosis. I do not need to be mired in dreary thoughts of imminent doom, nor cowering in fear of the inevitable Reaper, nor bingeing on morbidity to be curious about the topic; ever since my first exposure to Día de los Muertos on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, it struck me that there were long-standing historical traditions that embraced a healthy view of death quite counter to the scary and sad story sold to most of Western Civilization since the rise of Christianity.

There is a beautiful, festive vibe during Day of the Dead, when the living celebrate the dead. It isn’t rowdy like the antics of an Irish Wake, at least the kind mythologized in song. And the artistry involved in the alters can be quite stunning. The more festive parts of the Day of the Dead ceremonies, like those of the Irish Wake, remain from distant pagan traditions. Both the Aztec culture and the ancient Celts, it seems, shared the idea that death was something to be honored and celebrated, not because it was great that a person had died, but that it was wonderful that the person had lived — and, presumably, both cultures had similar notions that if there was an afterlife it would likely be a “better” place, and so bravo to the deceased for moving along!

For me, the idea that a person had lived is far more important than the idea that a person has died. While the world may lose that presence in some ways, celebrating the presence that remains is far, far more important, whether that is in physical artifacts, the result of good deeds or simply memories that leave a lasting impact. We all want to be remembered well, I imagine, even if we can’t always be well remembered. And this is why living well, doing good and being present in the moment is important. Our best shot at immortality is through leaving a legacy worth celebrating, be that our children or our work or some off-handed impact we didn’t even realize we had on someone else.

But if we don’t embrace death as our inevitable conclusion, with joy and humility and grace, how can we get past our conclusion to focus on the still existing arc of our lives? It is all about how we tell the story and how we choose to define the narrative.

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