[SEB Guest Post] The abyss looking back.

Here’s something that’s been bothering me so much that I just have to write about it. But I can’t put it on my own blog; the subject might read it there.

Sound petty? Hypocritical? Might be. I could certainly avoid hurting this person’s feelings by not writing about it at all, but I need to get this said and hear what you think about it. You be the judge; I won’t use any real names.

An old family friend – someone our age – has an adult daughter with bone cancer, which has spread to her lungs. She’s been sending out emails updating all her friends on the progress of the cancer and the treatment, as she takes her daughter to the clinics and nurses put her through punishing radiation and chemotherapy.

Every message is laced with; “Yay God!!!” and “God is so good to us”. Nausea wasn’t too bad this time? “Yea God!” Have to take your beloved cat to the no-kill shelter because her daughter’s white count is down? A major sacrifice, but nary a word about that. Doctor is really on the ball? Sure was great of God to take them to him. The messages all end with Romans 8:28; “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not offended by the narrative; it just make me sad. We only have a little time on Earth, we’re pursued by death the whole way, and I get the impression her daughter is not even allowed to feel bad about having cancer. You’d think the threat of death1 would give us a little vacation from pretense; at least a short while to own our feelings and just be human about it. But no, she has to pretend God is being “good to us”.

I suppose I could send her back a message saying; “There’s no god, and you’re wasting the chance to be human in the short time you have together.” Nope, can’t see myself doing that. In one scenario, she’d just get mad at me and there’s no point giving her any negative emotions at all right now. In the other scenario, supposing – it’s unlikely but just suppose – her faith finally crumbled and she had to deal with her daughter’s cancer and the loss of her faith2, both at once? No matter how you slice it, a bad situation is made worse.

If there’s a point to writing this post, it is that religion isn’t coming to terms with death: it’s denying death. And often, even denying suffering too. Stop being human! If you cry out, you are saying God is not merciful. God, after all, restored Job after promising that he would “come to death at a full age”. This empty promise – contradicted every day by the world around us – is somehow supposed to give comfort to us as we face the dark abyss.

I have faced death twice in the last 7 years, and didn’t turn to a phantom either time.  My attitude is;  “All right, this is bad, and I’ll do everything I can within reason not to die. And whatever the outcome, that will have to be enough.”

Fine, but why should I care if anyone else takes that approach? Just this: by denying death, we devalue it, and life, and give license to war and every destruction of the environment for human gain. We throw down moral responsibility, making death and oppression something that God will balance in the end.

That, and not just some comforting platitude, is what surrounds the hospital room, when we just can’t face the reality of death. But not having the stomach for afflicting the already afflicted, I’m damned if I know how to respond.

1: Of course, we’re all, always under the threat of death but sometimes it’s more obvious and immediate.

2: When you have a lot invested in faith, the loss of faith can be as real and traumatic as the loss of a loved one or a partner. You get over it eventually, but it’s a rough ride. /VoiceOfExperience

Death of a blogger.

I didn’t know Derek K. Miller, but he sounds like he might have been someone I would’ve enjoyed hanging out with. I only know about him because the very last post he wrote on his blog — a post announcing his own death from cancer — was linked to by Fark.com. It is a poignant and worthwhile read.

Here’s a snippet:

There can’t be answers today. While I was still alive writing this, I was sad to know I’ll miss these things—not because I won’t be able to witness them, but because Air, Marina, and Lauren won’t have me there to support their efforts.

It turns out that no one can imagine what’s really coming in our lives. We can plan, and do what we enjoy, but we can’t expect our plans to work out. Some of them might, while most probably won’t. Inventions and ideas will appear, and events will occur, that we could never foresee. That’s neither bad nor good, but it is real.

via The last post – Penmachine – Derek K. Miller.

Mr. Miller was 41. Two years younger than myself. To say that it makes me pause to reflect on my own life should go without saying. It’s a testament to Mr. Miller that I found myself choking up at his last words in spite of never having heard of him before today. I only hope that if I should have the opportunity to see death coming with enough time to write down my final thoughts that what I produce could be as moving.

My condolences to his family and friends in their time of loss.

In death as in life, timing is everything…

(NewsCore) – COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — A Minnesota woman won $15,000 in the lottery a month after she died, with her husband left surprised as he did not know she even played, KARE-TV reported Saturday.

Ginny McCauley, of Cottage Grove, Minn., died of cancer in November, but two friends she played the lottery with for 30 years continued to buy a ticket.

via Minn. Woman Wins Lottery After Dying.

Ideally you should try to win the lotto before you die, but I suppose it’s a nice parting gift to those you’re leaving behind. I know I wouldn’t be upset to leave behind a winning ticket when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil. Just the same I’d rather get it beforehand and try to prove the cliche that money can’t buy you happiness.

Kudos to her lotto partners for sharing the winnings with her widowed husband as they had no legal obligation to do so.

If Heaven is so great why are so many Christians reluctant to go there?

Spend any amount of time talking with a True Believer™ about their religious outlook and eventually they’ll get around to raving about how awesome Heaven will be. Each one will have a slightly different viewpoint on what exactly Heaven will be like, but they all agree it’s the best thing you could ever hope to experience and they simply can’t wait to get there. You’d think, given all the excitement they express over it, that this would mean they’d be less likely to seek out aggressive medical care at the end of their lives. Surely with such a great thing waiting for them on the other side they’d be more than happy to die sooner rather than later, but as it turns out that’s often not the case at all.

The Boston Globe reports on a study done at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and five other sites in which Boston researchers found that the more religious the terminal patients were the more likely they’d be to demand everything be done to keep them alive as long as possible:

The patients who leaned the most heavily on their faith were nearly three times more likely to choose and receive more aggressive care near death, such as ventilators or cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They were less likely to have advanced care planning in place, such as do-not-resuscitate orders, living wills, and healthcare proxies.

“These results suggest that relying upon religion to cope with terminal cancer may contribute to receiving aggressive medical care near death,” the authors write in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association. “Because aggressive end-of-life cancer care has been associated with poor quality of death . . . intensive end-of-life care might represent a negative outcome for religious copers.”

Cancer is a particularly painful way to die. It’s been the cause of death for a good number of my relatives so I’ve seen what it’s like. There’s a good chance it’ll be how I end up passing away if I don’t get hit by a bus. In short, it’s hard to imagine how anyone who is dieing from cancer, and who expects something as wonderful as Heaven is supposed to be to be waiting for them once they kick the bucket, could possibly want to draw out the experience.

The best I can come up with is that they’re worried they haven’t earned access to Heaven yet. Either through some action or inaction that they always meant to get around to or perhaps there’s some sin they’re not completely sure God will forgive them for or maybe it’s simple insecurity. It does seem odd, though, that the people most certain that Heaven does exist and that they’ve made the proper choice of which religion to believe in would be so reluctant to put that faith to the ultimate test. I claim no certainty that there isn’t God(s) or an afterlife, I don’t believe either proposition to be true, but I wouldn’t claim to be absolutely certain about it as some TB’s would about their beliefs that there are. I believe death brings only non-existence, which some people consider a fate worse than Hell. Yet I can assure you that if I were to develop terminal cancer I wouldn’t be wasting a lot of time and money trying to live as long as possible.

The Boston study confirms something I’ve long suspected about many True Believers™. That a good number of them have a very strong fear of death in spite of what they believe it’ll bring to them and in contradiction to what they claim. It’s certainly an interesting enigma.

Death is difficult to imagine.

There’s a fascinating article on the Scientific American website today titled Never Say Die: Why We Can’t Imagine Death:

The common view of death as a great mystery usually is brushed aside as an emotionally fueled desire to believe that death isn’t the end of the road. And indeed, a prominent school of research in social psychology called terror management theory contends that afterlife beliefs, as well as less obvious beliefs, behaviors and attitudes, exist to assuage what would otherwise be crippling anxiety about the ego’s inexistence.

[…] Yet a small number of researchers, including me, are increasingly arguing that the evolution of self-consciousness has posed a different kind of problem altogether. This position holds that our ancestors suffered the unshakable illusion that their minds were immortal, and it’s this hiccup of gross irrationality that we have unmistakably inherited from them. Individual human beings, by virtue of their evolved cognitive architecture, had trouble conceptualizing their own psychological inexistence from the start.

[…] Consider the rather startling fact that you will never know you have died. You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a “you” around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened. Just to remind you, you need a working cerebral cortex to harbor propositional knowledge of any sort, including the fact that you’ve died—and once you’ve died your brain is about as phenomenally generative as a head of lettuce. In a 2007 article published in the journal Synthese, University of Arizona philosopher Shaun Nichols puts it this way: “When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there’s an obstacle!”

This observation may not sound like a major revelation to you, but I bet you’ve never considered what it actually means, which is that your own mortality is unfalsifiable from the first-person perspective. This obstacle is why writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe allegedly remarked that “everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.”

While reading this I had one of those “Aha!” moments of understanding. There’s been more than one religious friend with whom I’ve had the how-can-you-not-be-a-believer discussion that said exactly the same thing to me to justify their religious beliefs. Paraphrased they all said “I just can’t imagine there being nothing after I’ve died. There must be something.” They were hitting up against the psychological wall that this article was talking about.

Some of us are able to get around the wall and recognize the finality of death, the article refers to us as “extinctivist”, but even we are susceptible to, as the article says, “psychological continuity reasoning.” From the article:

What was surprising, however, was that many participants who had identified themselves as having “extinctivist” beliefs (they had ticked off the box that read: “What we think of as the ‘soul,’ or conscious personality of a person, ceases permanently when the body dies”) occasionally gave psychological-continuity responses, too. Thirty-two percent of the extinctivists’ answers betrayed their hidden reasoning that emotions and desires survive death; another 36 percent of their responses suggested the extinctivists reasoned this way for mental states related to knowledge (such as remembering, believing or knowing). One particularly vehement extinctivist thought the whole line of questioning silly and seemed to regard me as a numbskull for even asking. But just as well—he proceeded to point out that of course Richard knows he is dead, because there’s no afterlife and Richard sees that now.

Which, of course, is nonsense as a dead person doesn’t know anything anymore. Still it’s very hard to imagine ceasing to exist as a conscious entity simply because all of our experiences throughout life are a result of our consciousness and even when we’re unconscious there’s still a certain level of brain activity taking place which is far removed from no activity at all.

The article goes on to briefly describe some experiments they conducted to try and verify the idea that psychological immortality represents the intuitive, natural way of thinking about death as opposed to being something we pick up through cultural influences such as religion. I don’t want to quote too much from the article as it’s something you should read in full, but the results of the studies did support that premise. As it turns out religious belief tends to reinforce psychological-continuity thinking, but isn’t the main cause of it:

In fact, exposure to the concept of an afterlife plays a crucial role in enriching and elaborating this natural cognitive stance; it’s sort of like an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief. The end product can be as ornate or austere as you like, from the headache-inducing reincarnation beliefs of Theravada Buddhists to the man on the street’s “I believe there’s something” brand of philosophy—but it’s made of the same brick and mortar just the same.

In support of the idea that culture influences our natural tendency to deny the death of the mind, Harvard University psychologist Paul Harris and researcher Marta Giménez of the National University of Distance Education in Spain showed that when the wording in interviews is tweaked to include medical or scientific terms, psychological-continuity reasoning decreases. In this 2005 study published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, seven- to 11-year-old children in Madrid who heard a story about a priest telling a child that his grandmother “is with God” were more likely to attribute ongoing mental states to the decedent than were those who heard the identical story but instead about a doctor saying a grandfather was “dead and buried.”

And in a 2005 replication of the Baby Mouse experiment published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, psychologist David Bjorklund and I teamed with psychologist Carlos Hernández Blasi of Jaume I University in Spain to compare children in a Catholic school with those attending a public secular school in Castellón, Spain. As in the previous study, an overwhelming majority of the youngest children—five- to six-year-olds—from both educational backgrounds said that Baby Mouse’s mental states survived. The type of curriculum, secular or religious, made no difference. With increasing age, however, culture becomes a factor—the kids attending Catholic school were more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than were those at the secular school. There was even a smattering of young extinctivists in the latter camp.

Finally the article goes on to address why we tend to think that the mind is freed from the body at death to go off into some form of afterlife:

Back when you were still in diapers, you learned that people didn’t cease to exist simply because you couldn’t see them. Developmental psychologists even have a fancy term for this basic concept: “person permanence.” Such an off-line social awareness leads us to tacitly assume that the people we know are somewhere doing something. As I’m writing this article in Belfast, for example, my mind’s eye conjures up my friend Ginger in New Orleans walking her poodle or playfully bickering with her husband, things that I know she does routinely.

As I’ve argued in my 2006 Behavioral and Brain Sciences article, “The Folk Psychology of Souls,” human cognition is not equipped to update the list of players in our complex social rosters by accommodating a particular person’s sudden inexistence. We can’t simply switch off our person-permanence thinking just because someone has died. This inability is especially the case, of course, for those whom we were closest to and whom we frequently imagined to be actively engaging in various activities when out of sight.

And so person permanence may be the final cognitive hurdle that gets in the way of our effectively realizing the dead as they truly are—infinitely in situ, inanimate carbon residue. Instead it’s much more “natural” to imagine them as existing in some vague, unobservable locale, very much living their dead lives.

Again this is something that even people who recognize death as the end still engage in. Just this morning, for no apparent reason, I found myself thinking of my best friend Bill Owen who was killed suddenly in an auto accident over five years ago. The pain and sadness of that loss has softened enough after all this time that I didn’t even remember to mention the anniversary of his death on SEB this year as I had done every year previously, but when I do think about him these days (and it’s still fairly often) I still have a hard time believing he’s really dead even though I know it beyond a shadow of a doubt as I was one of the people who identified his body. Had I only seen him at the funeral it would’ve been even harder because the corpse laying in the casket didn’t look quite like Bill did in life, but the one I saw laying on the hospital gurney certainly did. He didn’t have any outward signs of injury and might have been sleeping except for the complete and utter stillness of his form. It’s a sight I won’t soon forget. Yet in spite of all that I still entertain thoughts of what Bill would be up to today. Granted I manage to tack on a “if he were still alive” to the thought process, but it’s the same sort of thinking none-the-less.

It’s important, I think, to realize that this is a natural thought process that everyone tends to have and that while religion certainly encourages it, it would be wrong to say that religion causes it. When people say they can’t imagine there being nothing after death they’re speaking literal truth and for many people that’s a good reason to accept religious beliefs as true. When arguing about religious belief we need to be aware of the hurdles we all have that make religious ideas seem believable if we are to formulate good arguments against them.

Half of Americans think prayer can save the terminally ill.

This just in: 1 in 2 Americans is a total idiot:

More than half of randomly surveyed adults — 57 percent — said God’s intervention could save a family member even if physicians declared treatment would be futile. And nearly three-quarters said patients have a right to demand such treatment.

When asked to imagine their own relatives being gravely ill or injured, nearly 20 percent of doctors and other medical workers said God could reverse a hopeless outcome.

“Sensitivity to this belief will promote development of a trusting relationship” with patients and their families, according to researchers. That trust, they said, is needed to help doctors explain objective, overwhelming scientific evidence showing that continued treatment would be worthless.

So they’re saying you have to kowtow to their beliefs in order to be able to tell them that continued treatment is pointless? How? By telling them “Folks, it’s time to start praying cause there’s fuck-all left that I can do”?

What’s really odd is the next few paragraphs talk about a Michigan woman by the name of Pat Loder who lost her two kids in a car accident who says that you need that belief at the time in spite of the fact that her kids still died and now she doesn’t buy into the idea as much as she did. Wait… what?

She said her beliefs about divine intervention have changed.

“I have become more of a realist,” she said. “I know that none of us are immune from anything.”

Loder was not involved in the survey, which appears in Monday’s Archives of Surgery.

She’s not involved with the survey, her views on divine intervention have changed, why the hell are they talking to her again?

Anyway, one doctor in the article basically seems to be saying that with today’s medical technology it’s possible to keep a body “alive” with no chance of recovery and that a lot of people think God will provide them a miracle. So they key, he says, is to not dismiss that belief, but show the family members that said miracle is unlikely given the condition of the patient:

Jacobs said he frequently meets people who think God will save their dying loved one and who want medical procedures to continue.

“You can’t say, ‘That’s nonsense.’ You have to respect that” and try to show them X-rays, CAT scans and other medical evidence indicating death is imminent, he said.

Relatives need to know that “it’s not that you don’t want a miracle to happen, it’s just that is not going to happen today with this patient,” he said.

Which is an odd argument to make because they very definition of a miracle is the impossible becoming possible so you’d expect that someone who was truly hoping for a miracle wouldn’t be dissuaded by a bunch of scientific evidence. Some aren’t, but they seem to be the exception to the rule.

Yet another doctor goes on to suggest that miracles aren’t all they’re cracked up to be:

Dr. Michael Sise, trauma medical director at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, called the study “a great contribution” to one of the most intense issues doctors face.

Sise, a Catholic doctor working in a Catholic hospital, said miracles don’t happen when medical evidence shows death is near.

“That’s just not a realistic situation,” he said.

Apparently miracles are susceptible to reality.

The whole article is kind of strange in that the doctors being quoted are basically saying that they need to be sensitive to the fact that people are idiots who put a lot of stock in wishful thinking and so long as they pay lip service to that wishful thinking they can usually convince said idiots that further treatment is pointless. So, really, all the article says is half of Americans are idiots.

Remembering My Father

It was seven years ago today that I sat in a small room at a hospice in Baltimore, Maryland and watched my father take his last breath.

He had small cell cancer from a lifetime of smoking and drinking. The doctors had declared it terminal less than a year before. My Mom took care of him from home and for the last couple of months, my wife, Tia, and I stayed with them to help.

It is immeasurably difficult to watch a loved one deteriorate in the way that he did. To go from someone you can sit and talk with about the latest British mystery show running on PBS (his favorite topic) to someone who would just sit on the couch, cigarette in one hand (often unlit), beer in the other, doped to the gills on morphine and unable to speak while his body ate him away from the inside.

The transition was quick, only a few weeks and he no longer seemed to know who we were or where he was. As all signs of the man I knew slipped away, we decided to move him to the hospice. We felt the quality of his life, for his last few days, would be better under professional care. It was not an easy decision.

An ambulance took him to the facility and my mother, Tia and I followed after. It took about an hour to get him checked in and settled into his room. He sat on the edge of the bed like it was his couch and his fingers, clutched at an imaginary cigarette, went to his lips, again and again.

 

It was very late, or very early I suppose, and we had left the house without money or food. I told Mom and Tia to go back to the house, to eat and get cleaned up. I told them that I’d wait with Dad.

I watched him while they were gone. Vacantly staring straight ahead, totally oblivious to me, his breathing ragged, in and out, in and out, in and out,…. Then it stopped. No warning, no other sign, just one second he was breathing, the next, he was gone.

I don’t remember much of what followed. I know that a nurse led me from his room, that Tia and my Mother returned and that they took me home, but those memories exist in a kind of haze.

I thought that the memory of his death and the month of pain that preceded it would eventually fade, that the memories would become easier to deal with as time passed. It hasn’t worked that way, for me. It some ways, those moments have grown sharper and more painful.

I still purposefully face those memories every year, allowing the pain so that I can remember the good moments. The times we sat on the porch, chatting and drinking a beer, the times we spent watching Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Morse, the times (few as they were) that we went fishing.

My father and I, we were very different people. We didn’t have much in common, didn’t spend much time together. I’ll have my regrets about that for the rest of my life.

He had his flaws, we all do, but Bobby Gene Glover was a good man, and I miss him.

Once again prayer fails to save a young man’s life.

16-year-old Neil Beagley died of heart failure thanks to an untreated urinary tract blockage:

He probably had a congenital condition that constricted his urinary tract where the bladder empties into the urethra, and the condition of his organs indicates that he had multiple blockages during his life, said Dr. Clifford Nelson, deputy state medical examiner for Clackamas County.

“You just build up so much urea in your bloodstream that it begins to poison your organs, and the heart is particularly susceptible,” Nelson said.

Nelson said a catheter would have saved the boy’s life. If the condition had been dealt with earlier, a urologist could easily have removed the blockage and avoided the kidney damage that came with the repeated illnesses, Nelson said.

In short, the kid died because he couldn’t piss and reports have it he refused medical treatment in favor of prayer. It probably won’t be prosecuted as a crime because in Oregon the law allows anyone 14 years or older to refuse medical treatment. The same can’t be said of the boy’s cousin, though, who has also fallen victim to people who think prayer actually does something:

In March, the boy’s 15-month-old cousin Ava Worthington died at home from bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection.

Her parents, Carl and Raylene Worthington, also belong to the church. They have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and criminal mistreatment, and their defense attorneys have indicated that they will use a religious freedom defense.

I find it odd that so many True Believers™ will protest abortion because every life is sacred, but apparently not sacred enough for some to seek simple medical treatment for their kids. Abortion is murder, but not getting your kid a catheter is just God’s way of saying his time has come.

Death comes in many forms. Such as this cute little KITTY OF DOOM!

Oscar the cat predicts patients’ deaths – Yahoo! News

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up next to them during their final hours. His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have less than four hours to live.

“He doesn’t make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die,” said Dr. David Dosa in an interview. He describes the phenomenon in a poignant essay in Thursday’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one,” said Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University.

I actually don’t have that much to say about this. I just thought it was kind of neat. I made an attempt at a Demon Kitty from Hell joke, but it wasn’t working so I’ll just let it be.

Uncle Gene’s memorial service is today.

We’ll be attending my uncle’s memorial service today. Not sure what that entails, but it’s not supposed to be a full blown funeral service as that’s not what he wanted. It’s taking place at a church in the town he lived in and will probably consist mostly of family members getting up to speak about him. I know that my mother has been mulling over what to say for the past couple of days and I’m pretty sure my sister will speak if she’s able to attend.

As for me I mentioned previously that I wasn’t all that close with my uncle, but I tried to see if there was anything I could come up with that would seem appropriate at the service. So far I’ve not come up with anything particularly interesting or insightful so I’ll probably leave the talking to everyone else. Hopefully the clergy will keep the proselytizing to a minimum, but that’s probably wishful thinking on my part. We’ll find out in a couple of hours from now.