93% of all deaths in the United States are from “natural” causes, according to a CNN news report in 2013. A greater number of these were found to be at or near Christmas and the New Year holiday, with no difference as to the cause of death. It was determined that emotional stress is not a factor, since those with Alzheimer’s showed the same result. Interestingly, suicides do not increase, but rather appear to decrease, at this time of the year. It is also true according to Legacy.com that more people die of natural causes in the winter than the rest of the year, although there, of course, are an increased number of specifically heat-related deaths in the summer. The time of day or night when most people pass away has variously been either around 4:00 a.m. or in the late morning.
While these are just statistics and averages, these numbers do point to a common experience, one we might all be heedful of at this time of year, particularly when we have a family member or friend who is of advanced years and frail or poor health.
Other clues to when we might die, particularly when death is very near, are certain common physical symptoms, or manifestations. In a study of 200 cases, reported in Palliative Care Perspectives, by James L. Hallenbeck, M.D., the following physical manifestations, with the reported incidence, were present within the last 48 hours:
Noisy and moist breathing – 56%
Restlessness and agitation – 42%
Complaints of pain – 42%
Urinary incontinence – 32%
Shortness of breath – 22%
Urinary retention – 21%
Nausea and vomiting – 14%
Sweating – 14%
Jerking, twitching, plucking – 12%
Confusion – 8%
Again, more statistics that describe only some of the situations. For each of these clues, there are many other occasions when none of them presented.
Another way to consider “When We Die” is from a completely non-statistically, non-medical perspective. We die when we are ready. I remember my own mother. Her throat cancer had returned and was no longer treatable. She amazed her treating doctor by living for weeks, perhaps months, before she passed. I came to her bedside, cried beside her because “I” was not ready for her to go, and then whispered to her as I prepared to return to my nine-month pregnant wife two counties away, “It’s okay to go.” She passed, comfortably I’m told, that evening, only hours after I had gone.
One of the poems in my book, A Life Well Lived, A Death Well Met talks about when I want to die. Perhaps you have your own idea of when you want to die.
I Want to Die When . . .
I am afraid that I will die in the darkness of a soul less cherished by my sons and lovers, abandoned to my own small world of treasures gathered over a lifetime then left behind without guardians appointed for another lifetime of selfish pleasure.
I am afraid that I will die in a corner, cowering with fear, in the pain of aloneness and doubt, gathering dust as I wait another hour, day or world of minutes. In my nightmare, I die in a scenario I have selected carefully, without opening to the choices of others, not seeing their gifts of moments, no smiling or light or sound, no dreams, no gurgling of water rushing over rocks on a downhill run toward the sea.
What I truly want and pray for is to die when it is my time, when God is no longer tolerant of my requests for a stay of execution. I want to die at the end of a lifetime of service and joy and knowledge of the Great Friend.
I want to die after doubling back, confusing the trail and covering my tracks so that my presence will only have been noted by the touch of God in other people’s lives.
I want to die when my pen is dry but the ink is still wet and the paper black with stories writ large and small across a broad canvas. I want to die when God says enough, come home to Me, when He longs for my company in His house.
I want to die when I am so old and used up I am no longer able to make new friends, awaken to old ones, or step outside to greet the morning sun.
I want to die when there are no longer any first rains of the new season, when the floods don’t recede, and when God no longer needs His willing servant in this world.