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COVID-19: Looking at death in the face

During this time of staying in (both in my house and in myself), I’ve come face to face with death.

I have not gotten the virus, and I thank my lucky stars for that, but it’s brought up the reality of dying this way. I have been preparing, in case I do get it. We all die sooner or later, and those of us in our later years have certainly felt its upcoming presence more acutely.

With this virus, so mysterious and devastating to so many, it gives me reason to arrange things. Our age group is the most vulnerable. I’ve always thought dying may be the most sacred and important moment of my life, so like running a marathon, it’s good to be prepared, on many levels.

I have updated my dying wishes for my kids, filled out the self-advocacy list for COVID-19 in case I’m whisked to the hospital and made sure my other paperwork is in order. I am paying attention to the articles from near and far that pertain to symptoms of the virus, how it attacks our lungs, what to do, decisions to make, etc. Do I really want to be on a ventilator? I’m not sure.

Would we rather die naturally from this disease, or if there is a surge here, be crowded into the hospital hallway without our loved ones and hooked up for two weeks on a breathing machine? Supposedly, ventilators can cause heart damage, kidneys can shut down and the dependence on the machine can last for weeks. The sedation one needs for these machines can also cause profound complications, damaging muscles and nerves, making it hard for those who do survive to walk, move or even think as well as they did before they became ill.

Then what, if we do come out of it? Would we resume life again just like it was before? I’m not sure anything will ever “be the same” again, in our lives anyway. Or, if we want it to be the same, “business as usual.”

Most of us have fairly completed our lives in our 70s and 80s. However, I would still like to see my grandchildren graduate from college and move into their lives. To see a different president in office. To see climate change shift back into favor for all living things. But do we ever stop wanting more? Are we ever ready for the inevitable?

Remember Dr. Zeke Emmanuel’s article in The Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75”? He writes about too many elders being kept alive for years and years who are riddled with disease and dementia and constant pain. He has decided not to have any medical intervention to prolong his life after age 75. He wants to die, “ ... when whatever comes first takes me.”

These are not pessimistic, fear-filled feelings, they are realistic. We must make these decisions now, as who knows how we’ll feel if we do get sick.

Final Exit Network has a document that helps delineate some of these important choices (finalexitnetwork.org). Find it under coronavirus, then ”here is a tool.” It has helped me decide exactly what I want, if I do get this virus.

In the meantime, I do hope we don’t have a surge of cases and infirmaries here. Bless the health care workers and may we hope and plan for a healthier future for all of us.

Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life and written a book, “The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game.” Reach her at mmm@bresnan.net.