In Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, death is an idea we have to sneak up on. The play imagines that five children are gathering to help their father die well and to navigate the aftermath. […] As their father moans and moves, but does not speak, the siblings disagree, with patience and love, about how to care for him as his death approaches. Ann, the protagonist, opposes her brothers’ plan to keep upping his morphine—regardless of whether it is necessary to treat his pain—to help him avoid a protracted, difficult death. Groping for a way to explain her reluctance, she tells them that when she euthanized her dog she couldn’t shake the feeling she had killed her pet, and she doesn’t want to feel that way about her father. As I watched the play, I was struck by the fact that she had to turn to the example of an animal’s bad death to try to illustrate what a good one might be for a person.
Caring for the dying and the dead is an act of hospitality, the last one we get to offer someone. It is always difficult work, but we have made it harder (and rarer) than it should be by sheltering ourselves so carefully from any glimpse of death.
And, for further reading, consider visiting or otherwise supporting the Dominican Sisters at Hawthorne, who care for the dying. And check out this NYT Magazine piece on prisoners working in hospice for their fellow inmates.
(Image at top, Burial of the dead on the Antietam battlefield, Wikimedia Commons).