How to Die (just in case it happens someday)

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“In my own life if I knew I was going to pass away I'd love to sit down and resolve every issue so I could go peacefully.” – John Travolta

My Grandmother-in-law passed away. She died peacefully knowing she would be with the Lord in heaven. She was always good to my family and I’ll never forget that. She was always welcoming with a big smile. She was very generous to other people. We could do no wrong in her eyes. There are times in life where it’s very comforting to know that there is always a place where you are welcome. Our visits meant the world to her.

My Grandfather-in-law recently lost his independence. He was 88 when he became sick. He received various surgeries to keep him alive. He was a proud, independent man who never dreamed of being a burden to other people. He is now confined to a bed or wheel chair going back and forth between a hospital and a rehabilitation center. He will eventually die in peace knowing he will be with the Lord in heaven and reunited with his wife of over 60 years.

Grandpa does not have a lot of short term memory these days. By lunch he has forgotten what he had for breakfast. He very much lives in the moment. He still has his personality and sense of humor which is good. He does remember all the family stories told over and over at family gatherings over the years.

Before getting sick, Grandpa lived in a small place without many possessions. Everything related to what he has is all in an envelope in his dresser. He has made out his will. As he puts it, any idiot would be able to figure out any and all of his remaining business when he dies. Grandpa will be remembered as someone friendly, kind, hardworking, honest and a devout Christian.

My own Grandmother on my mother’s side didn’t die as peacefully. My mother told me of her final state of mind before she passed. She was angry and bitter towards her deceased ex-husband whom she divorced and hadn’t seen for over 20 years. My mother told me she didn’t want to die like her mother, and I know she won’t. She is not an angry and bitter person and, in fact, is the complete opposite.

My father died when he was six years older than I am now at the young age of 46. He was a depressed alcoholic on disability. At 41 he was diagnosed with progressive heart disease and given approx. 5 years to live at the time, which turned out to be accurate. Just before getting diagnosed, for whatever reason, he had canceled his life insurance policy. My memories of my father are not good. His own father left him before he was born. He never got over this and carried it as a burden his entire life. So much for time healing all wounds, it doesn’t.

Although initially successful and accomplished without even a high school diploma, he lacked confidence and was intimidated by people who had a college degree. He died in his sleep. Because of a falling out, I had not spoken to him in about 6 months before his death. For those who have cried and were deeply saddened at their own father’s passing, feel glad as this meant your relationship was something special. Many people would give much to have your tears.

Typically people have good memories of their father. This is how it’s supposed to be. I do not have good memories of my father. I have no forgiveness for him. A man is responsible for taking care of his family. I have no tolerance for men who don’t take responsibility for the wellbeing of their family. For a family man, the family is what we live for. Our primary purpose in life is to make sure our family is happy, healthy and provided for.

As a kid I was once knocked to the ground because I didn’t wipe my hands on a paper towel before leaving the dinner table. Bruises tend to heal quickly. The most vivid memory I have of my father was when he called my mother an extremely crude and vile name in front of my little sister. My mother had enough and began to get up from the dinner table, my pathetic alcoholic father ran off to pass out in the living room. I stood there frozen not knowing what to do. I was about sixteen at the time.

I will always regret being frozen at that moment. I should have gone up to my father and beat the living hell out of him. This is the memory that my father left me and still lingers 20 years after his death. It’s not something I think about much. There are far better things I think about to occupy my time.

Years ago, a man who worked for the same company and in the same office as I did committed suicide. I didn’t know him, but a close friend of his gave me the details. Apparently, he turned down an advancement opportunity and then changed his mind when it was too late. I’m not sure if this was the exact reason he took his own life, but apparently he was deeply depressed about the whole situation. He was married and had a baby daughter. He took his own life by shooting himself in the head in his basement. His wife found his body the next morning. People who described the funeral stated his widow was still in shock. She looked tortured, sad and confused.

It was difficult for me to hear people speak kindly of this man. It was hard for me to listen to, but I bit my tongue. I didn’t know this man but knew his actions and had nothing but disgust for what he did. How could he do this to his wife and daughter? All I could think about was his poor wife and daughter, and how they were going to carry on.

Many die peacefully, some die angry and bitter, some leave good memories, some leave bad memories, some take their own lives and some die by doing very stupid things. Which path do we want to choose? How do we intend to die, you know, just in case it happens someday?

All we know is the lives that we have lived. Death can be scary and even terrifying. Socrates used to mock people who feared death as they were ignorant as to whether death was better or worse than living.
“To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?” – Socrates

Further argument that death should not be feared is in the Socratic Paradox. Evil is ignorance and good is knowledge. God is good and therefore, the world is good. God is good and does not harm. A soul cannot be helped or improved in a place such as hell, and it does a soul harm to be in hell. It neither benefits the soul of man nor the soul of God. In a good world, no harm can come to a good person.

So did Socrates stick to his anti-Zeus guns after he was sentenced to death, or did he recant and begin begging the Greek Gods for mercy? His previous quote was actually taken during his trial. Many people believe that when faced with danger and death, the non-religious become religious, and the religious become more devout. In the face of death, all of a sudden the atheists start praying to God. This may be true for many; however, some are brave and carry their convictions to the end regardless of circumstances. Socrates was just as brave facing death as he was in his quest for truth. His final words can be found in his most accomplished student Plato’s work titled The Apology.

It’s important to note apology in Greek translates to defense. By no means did Socrates admit to any wrong doings. He was charged by the Athenian court with the crimes of not recognizing the Gods of the State, inventing new deities and corrupting the youth. In his defense, the piety of Socrates can be found in the following quote:
"Good sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?"

Socrates defends himself well and honorably. He does not apologize in our sense of the word and even attempts to humiliate his accusers. Ultimately, the deck is stacked against him. He has made fools of powerful men, and these men take their vengeance upon him. Socrates is sentenced to death and drinks the poison hemlock. He accepts the verdict and makes no plea for mercy. What are the last words of Socrates? “Crito, I owe a rooster to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?”

How do we want to be remembered after we die? Do we want a large gathering at our funeral or just a few close relatives and friends? What do we want said of us when we die? Ideally, one will be remembered and one will be loved after death.

“Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower should grow.” – Abraham Lincoln

“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.” – Mark Twain

I have listed personal stories and various outside sources related to the subject of how to die. Some of my own personal stories are unique while others are common. So what is the great conclusion? Everyone should contemplate how to die at one time or another. This is a personal decision that each of us should eventually prepare for. Not everything can be resolved using an agnostic approach or any other kind of rationality. Some things need to be resolved from the heart. The following is how I intend to die:
• Proud and thankful for the life that I have lived
• Without fear, brave like Socrates
• Without regret, anger and bitterness
• At peace as my wife’s grandmother died through means of strength in my own beliefs as she had in hers
• Making sure that all my remaining business is easily attended to by my survivors through means such as a living will and trust.
• I want to be remembered as Abraham Lincoln wanted to be remembered as being someone who planted a flower where I thought a flower should grow.
• I want to be completely independent through to my final days by maintaining a lifestyle that promotes health in the body and in the mind.
• If for whatever reason my physical body deteriorates to where I am dependent on other people, drugs and machines to live, I want the option of dying on my own terms.
• I want to be remembered and loved after I die by those who knew me well.
• I want those who knew me well to be sad at my passing but happy in my memories

Will my plan on how to die eventually be followed and fulfilled? As details regarding my death are unknown, the only way to know for certain is through the way that I live. My hope is that death does not come for a very long time.

“The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.” – Epicurus

This is a chapter from Agnosticism: The Battle against Shameless Ignorance

-James Kirk Wall

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