When I started writing Mortal Matters more than four year...

Coping/Mortal matters

November 02, 1992|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

When I started writing Mortal Matters more than four year ago, people said: "Death? How many columns can you write about that?"

The answer is plenty, and as I review the topics we've covered in this space, I realize how many more there are to explore.

But in my own life the abundance of topics has outrun another important ingredient in column-writing: time. A number of factors contribute to that, but the one I treasure most is a 7-month-old whose eagerness to explore this world is increasingly difficult to postpone for another deadline.

So, dear readers, this will be the last weekly installment of Mortal Matters, an adventure that has never been boring. We live in a society in which death is the unwelcome stranger at the door, the presence we try to ignore but which simply won't go away.

During these four years several factors have forced Americans to confront important issues about death. In 1988, for instance, relatively few Americans were aware of living wills and other NTC forms of advance directives. Now, when medical institutions admit patients, federal law requires that they be informed of the laws of their state regarding end-of-life decisions.

In 1988, physician-assisted suicide was rarely discussed in public. Now the issue regularly makes news. Last year's referendum on an aid-in-dying initiative defeated by voters in Washington state was only the first such measure to face voters around the country. This year it's California's turn to consider the issue, and other states are sure to follow.

In 1988, most Americans thought of AIDS as a plague that afflicted somebody else. Now the disease has claimed so many lives and has affected so many others that virtually everyone knows someone who is infected with the virus or who has died.

In other ways, nothing much has changed. The loss of a loved one is just as painful in 1992 as in any other time. The ache of grief is universal and, in a sense, eternal.

And death itself remains a mystery -- the great enemy and yet the great leveler of human beings. I'll always remember the oncologist who talked to me about the rewards of treating cancer patients with rare and invariably fatal forms of the disease.

"It can be the most enriching experience imaginable," this physician said. "Things get profound and real fairly quickly."

I'll also remember the countless letters from readers expressing their own grief, and how their stories are striking for being so similar and yet so unique. Each death marks survivors in its own way, just as each life leaves behind its own particular legacy.

People have often asked me whether I get depressed thinking about death every week. My answer is just like that wonderful doctor's -- the rewards make it all worthwhile. Yes, there are topics that can be sad and hard to face. But coming to grips with them has been a healthy exercise -- certainly for me and, I hope, for you.

As I said in the first Mortal Matters, "In the end, I suspect we'll find that facing our questions about death is the surest way to sort out our dilemmas about life. But let's not jump the gun. First we've got to stare the Old Man down."

With your help, I've tried to do just that. We haven't solved the problems death creates. But trying to "stare the Old Man down" has its rewards.

By raising the questions -- by simply talking about death -- we can shine a clarifying light on the dilemmas that cloud our lives: What do I want my own legacy to be? What -- and who -- is most important to me?

Most of all, I've learned that finding answers for death is not what matters. What counts is the questions -- and what we do with them.

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