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An Unrecognized “Stage” of Dying

by on September 16, 2015

                                                   An Unrecognized “Stage” of Dying                               

                                                               by Marco M. Pardi


Note: All comments are appreciated, read, and responded to accordingly.  The comments sections for all previous articles have been opened for use.  I will certainly look forward to your comments.

 “We die only once, and for such a long time!” Moliere (1622-1673) Le Depit amoureux, 5,3, 1656

“When a man lies dying, he does not die from disease alone. He dies from his whole life.” Charles Peguy (1873-1914) “Basic Verities: The Search for Truth”

By now every reader is familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ discussion of the stages people may go through in dying: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – DABDA. My issue here is the unrecognized and most often lengthy stage which begins with the realization of mortality.  In a separate piece I deal with the continually inadequate discussion of the “stages of dying” which, like the Near Death Experience (NDE) have become so formulaic and with which  everyone is so familiar. 

Somewhere early in childhood – opinions vary considerably, we become aware that we, like the life forms around us, must one day die.  Every culture we know of, past and present, has a means to address this.  But culture is a super organic; it is an intangible cloud of “they say” and “everyone knows” of which we are expected to partake and to internalize.  The culture provides answers to questions it presumes are asked and it does so often with the specter of severe disapproval if these answers do not suffice.

But what of the individual, the one who can unerringly pronounce the socially approved memes while abiding in an inner life of uncertainty and of influences of which he or she is not always consciously aware? What of the individual who examines his present circumstances and projects for himself the likely circumstances attending his dying process, which are sometimes contrary to the culture driven story?  I call this stage: Anticipation. We enter it as we become aware of our mortality.  We push it to the background with various culture provided aphorisms.  But, as Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan (Don Juan: A Jaqui Way of Knowledge) reminded him, Death is just over your left shoulder.

When I speak of uncertainty I am not referring to whether one will die, but how and when.  In the early days of some of my Death & Dying classes I asked students to anonymously answer the question: If someone could tell you when you will die, would you want to know?  Invariably the answers came back mostly negative. But some people, especially as they observe or become knowledgeable of other family members, begin to establish a perhaps realistic, perhaps magical paradigm for themselves.  This is no “Ivory Tower” discussion (the etiology of that term is at the conclusion).  This is a discussion for everyone, student or not.  Here’s an example:

In my 12th through 15th year we lived on a couple of acres about 15 miles northeast of Cleveland, Ohio.  Only a couple of homes had been built on what was once a very large farm and orchard.  Our neighbor had turned most of his back property into a very large and varied vegetable garden.  He was a science teacher at the local high school and was a bit over 61 years old when we moved there.  Taking any and all opportunities to get out of the house, I soon befriended him and helped him work that huge garden.  I was in quite good physical condition; he was a bit portly, with WWI shrapnel embedded in his right bicep.      

We worked that plot year round.  I often found myself exhausted and unable to really compete when we finished our work with a couple of games of horseshoes. But as the years passed I noticed a sharp decline in his stamina and mood.  As we talked he told me his grandfather died at 64 and his father died at 64.  Although he did not put it into words, it was clear he felt his end was drawing near.

As he reached 64 he became a dead man walking.  The garden weeds got ahead of me because without him helping I could not keep up.  He came outside far less often, and then only to sit on a patio chair and stare into space.  His warm stories of growing up on a South Indiana farm petered out, at around the same time as he began giving me artifacts from those farm years. He was dying himself to death.  And this was a well educated science teacher.

My family moved to another State and I soon went into the military and back to college.  Of course, in my line of work in the military of the 1960’s death was not abstract. Although no one spoke of it much, for fear of being considered unfit, the general attitude seemed to be when your time is up, it’s up.  Looking back later I was struck by the absence of discussion about life changing wounds and injuries – although there were many of those.  It was an all or nothing concept.

When my neighbor reached his early 70’s he and his wife visited my family at their new home.  I got a short visit with them.  He looked pretty worn out, but my mid 20’s mind told me that’s what people in their 70’s look like.  His wife did tell me he felt every day would be his last, but he just kept getting up in the morning.  Was this normal life?  Should I review the family males of preceding generations and make my plans accordingly? At least in his case he could share his concerns with his wife, even if she wasn’t equipped to rebut them with anything more than a vague “God knows”.

Another, more current example is an older couple I have known for some years.  He is retired from a high level, very cerebral career.  She retired early from a very low level job.  Although her I.Q. seems to be only a bit over half of his, she never misses an opportunity to criticize, mock, and belittle him even in public, often saying untrue things.  She often presents herself as his caretaker, as if he is incompetent. His daughter and grandchildren from a previous marriage want nothing to do with her.  He has withdrawn from all active engagement in life, reading at least one non-fiction book per week and, if going to a rare social event with her he sits quietly by himself.  Any attempts to discuss his reading with his wife meet with hostility.  “If I don’t talk to myself, no one else will.”

In talking with him about the trajectory his life has taken he told me, and I’ve seen it, that since his wife blames and criticizes him for everything and anything that happens, he dreads the possibility that some debilitating condition, such as cancer, should one day develop.  “If I do develop cancer, and if I do elect treatment, I will hire someone to take me for chemo so as not to inconvenience her Bridge parties, dinners with the ‘girls’, or vacation cruises she so loves. But, I’m inclined to reject treatment and just get it over as quickly as possible.  And, I’ll move into a residential hospice as soon as I’m eligible.”

It is fair to say this is a man who is fully into Anticipation, charting out the possible – if not likely development of events.  While some may rush to assure him he is seeing only the negative, there comes a time when one faces reality.  And reality, in this case, is mostly if not entirely negative. 

In sum, Anticipation is common in some form to most of us who are able to think.  Of course, there are extreme ends of this spectrum; “Sure, some day”, “I hope I go in my sleep” are at the threshold while waiting through each day past a magical marker (the example of being 64) is at the other.  Anticipation becomes irresponsible when simple acts like devising a Will are postponed or ignored.  It becomes morbid when planning for family events is curtailed because “I might not be here.” But it must be recognized and integrated into the ongoing life process in a productive and healthy way.

How did “Ivory Tower” become a meme in our culture?  In the development of America’s Ivy League universities the long standing English universities Oxford and Cambridge served as models. Perhaps the most insulated of these American universities was Princeton.  Its faux Gothic architecture borrowed from both Oxford and Cambridge.  And, most of its endowment came from the Proctor family (Proctor & Gamble).  When the tower at the Graduate College rose, funded by Proctor, it was a copy of the tower at Magdalen College Oxford, but it quickly became known as the “Ivory Tower” since Proctor’s greatest product at the time was Ivory soap.  Since then this title has come to stand for any academic institution which stands aloof from the general population which surrounds and supports it.

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  1. Marco, This is one of your best pieces; it has the ring of true personal introspection. I think we all, at one time or another, think about the end of our lives. I just want to live before I die. Lately, I have been talking about this with my mother. I may live another fifty years, but I doubt I will be healthy for all of it. I want to see some of my dreams come true while I am still able to enjoy them.

    My husband’s father and grandfather both died before they were fifty, and in his youth, he expected to do the same. He tried to push as much into what he assumed would be an abbreviated life as he could. After he passed his anticipated age limit, and for many years beyond, he seemed to feel he was “living on borrowed time.” He is now 64 years old and medically retired. He spends all his time watching television and playing on his tablet, no longer enjoying the things he did in his younger days. I can’t help but wonder if he is just waiting for the end to come.

    No one is immortal. I would love to know when my end was coming, because it would allow me to make the best of whatever time I had left. It would take away the uncertainty, which is the source of our greatest fear. Having experienced an NDE, death holds no fear for me, but perhaps the how and when hold maybe just a little. Rose


    • Thank you, Rose. I hesitated in writing this, but felt I needed to say it. I am often amazed at the array of means we have devised in our cultures to distract us from thinking. And I’m equally amazed at the frequent failures of cultures to provide social forums for those of us who do think deeply. It is for precisely this reason that I so value the opportunity to interact with you.

      I do hope your husband feels positive about his current adjustment to life. Certainly, being with you is an advantage the likes of which few people could lay claim to. I still hear the words of my current acquaintance as he said, “Most people fear cancer for the physical pain they expect it will bring. I fear it for the living hell my life will become.”


  2. loveandlightllc permalink

    Marco this is such a great point to make. So many people just assume the position of death. I am marveled by your insight. 🙂 i am in the Anticipation stage for your next blog.

    🙂 off to CA for a week we will have lunch when i return. office is still under renovation so naturally i am happy to have the break .

    With Love and Light, Jamie Butler

    1145 Zonolite Road Suite #10 Atlanta, GA 30306 404.815.4871



    • Thank you, Jamie. You more than most see Anticipation daily. I’m looking forward to your return and wishing you a most relaxing break. Marco


  3. This reminds me to get my end of life directives updated. My philosophy is pretty much summed up in Iris Dement’s song, “Let the Mystery Be”. The description of your friend is very sad. I have a neighbor that is very similar to the description of this couple. I have never understood why stay in a relationship like that. Surely being alone would be far better.


    • Thank you, Mary. I’ve had a Will since age 21, and have rewriten it as needed along with medical directives. Some think that’s morbid – – until they have to deal with a relative who has not done so.

      As I understand it, that “marriage” exists only because the pre-nuptial agreement isn’t that strong. He does not want to be reduced to beans and rice in his last years and lose what he has put aside for his descendants.


  4. I’ve given a lot of thought to the end of my life; the when and the how, including methods of making it happen. I’ve wondered what makes us want to end our lives, and what makes that life worth living. I’ve wanted to die, but never enough to make it happen. There was always something… It wasn’t fear; life is harder than death.

    “Antici…..pation,” to quote Dr. Frankenfurter, is a double edged blade. We anticipate the good things that our future may hold, but when that good gets hard to find, the not-so-good begins to occupy our minds. We accept the might-be’s as certainty. The thing is, the laws of attraction tend to bring these things into our lives. Your friend’s fear of cancer might be what makes it a reality.

    I read once that the average military man lives only two years past retirement. I don’t believe that’s true, but the why bears thinking about. Experience has taught me how different the world is once that life is over. Twenty years of discipline and purpose give way to nothing. It’s not an easy transition. My husband says that too many buy a fishing boat and a six-pack. I think it’s lack of purpose that ultimately kills, but then I’ll be the first to say I don’t understand the civilian mind set, even after this many years of being one.


    • Thank you, Rose. You provide several concepts for further development But on two points, my friend does not so much fear cancer as he fears the hell his life would become having to endure nonstop criticism and nastiness at home.

      And, while we often say “retirement kills” it is also true that medicine is advancing at remarkable rates. So, for example, my other friend who obsessed on his grandfather at 64 and his father at 64 did not take into account the advances made within his own lifetime. In fact, I feel I likely would have died years ago had it not been for those advances.

      I know we would all like to read your expansion on your thoughts, and I hope you will do that for us.


      • Points well made and well taken; I still believe that dwelling on a problem, as opposed to working on a solution, brings with it the possibility of it becoming a self fulfilling prophecy. I recognize that sometimes acceptance of the situation, and avoiding the worst of it, is the only solution possible.

        Medical advances within our lifetimes have indeed been remarkable. We still have to take care of ourselves, and be able to access these medicines and procedures if they are needed.

        Having a will and final directive is not morbid. It is intelligent, thoughtful, caring and considerate of those we leave behind.


  5. Mark Dohle permalink

    My relationship with my mortality is probably just as complex as anyone else’s. I did at a young age (I was 4) seemed to get the insight that my young aunt, who was 15 years older than me, would soon be old, even though at the time she was only 19 and very beautiful. This caused me sadness and has stayed with me. It has caused a split in me that I have not been able to bring together. One side is the happy go lucky clown; the other side is about three inches from being a nihilist of the worst sort. Happy go lucky atheist drive me crazy!

    When this is understood, the losing of ones youth is accepted and even embraced. I guess the up side of knowing how temporal we are from an early age has made me enjoy aging, even though there are the aches and pains, the bad back etc., yet inwardly I am still 15 or so. I always get a shock once in awhile when I look in the mirror and see who is looking back.

    There is much good in our cultural, but the shallow and the unimportant seem to be given importance. The lives of the rich and famous, face lifts, the mad rush for money etc. I am not saying this from a position of feeling superior. Far from it; I have my own inner issues and fears, angers and anxieties that keep me occupied.

    People talk a lot about the NDE but only as a topic of interest. I believe there is a prophetic element in NDE’s that is trying to get our attention. One such is that just about everything we give importance to is a waste of time. The only important thing is just this, to ‘love’, sounds simple but of course it is not. Also the reality that there is really true justice based on compassion, which insist that we get away with nothing, that we have to experience in the first person what we did to others. The afterlife is good news, but the life review gets mixed reviews.

    Mercy and justice go together. The deeper we love, the more we understood how we fail, that leads to a deeper experience of heart rending mercy. In that we are healed, our “I am the only center” is finally destroyed and we enter into the true center. Self-centeredness is a hard nut to crack….perhaps impossible in this life; all we can do is to grow in empathy, perhaps the only cure for this hell like at times affliction.

    Yet I also fear death, because we live in a world of not-knowing, of searching, many do not like this. Deeper in and higher up is what we are about, the journey filled with all kinds of experiences and fears that have to be faced. None are spared that. Perhaps the strongest among us get the heavier load. I do believe that our fear of death is a necessary goad to live our lives knowing that we really don’t have a lot of time. This can really be freeing, and in the end leads one not to give a shit what others think important.


    • Thank you, Mark. As always, you convey a message formed from personal experience and turmoil which reaches into and touches each of us deeply. And I entirely agree: The NDE experience, even enlightenment in the absence of such experience clearly shows us that much, if not most of our corporal existence is filled with the trivia with which we occupy ourselves within the confines of what we imagine to be our freedom. Thank you so much for providing those insights for us. Marco


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