Death with dignity and Lady Gaga?
I am certain Lady Gaga was talking about something else with her song, Do What U Want, but for me, segments of the lyrics shout a triumphant anthem of independence and integrity, words that describe just what I hear from people who are talking about dying with dignity. Consider: “You can’t stop my voice ‘cause you don’t own my life, but do what you want with my body.”
Most of us will die from one or more chronic, progressive diseases that incrementally take our body and its function away from us. Our bodies become weaker, we lose the ability to do things we once did. Sometimes cancers and surgeries actually remove pieces of flesh and bone. Heart and lung diseases rob us of our breath. Frequently, before we die, we lose our most private functions like sexual performance and the ability to control our bowels and bladder. Though we fight to recover what we have lost and maintain what remains, eventually disease and degeneration consume more and more of the body we inhabit. That might not sound dignified, but it is reality. What I hear from Lady Gaga’s words is that even as our bodies are progressively overcome, we can remain intact.
I have argued against the use of the obituary phrase that someone “lost their battle with…” as if the battle was only about maintenance of physical existence. Those whose fight is with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementing illnesses that steal our very selves know better. Dying with dignity is much the same as living with dignity, fully being who we are whatever the circumstances and challenges are, even when the circumstance is the cessation of our life.
This is hard work. Sometimes it is heroic struggle of an individual, like Lady Gaga’s start to this song, “I, I feel good, I walk alone,” though this is rare and is usually a path that leads to more suffering as it adds loneliness to all the pain already present. More often, living or dying with dignity requires a support system of people who care about and for us, a posse to accompany us through the journey. The phrase form a few decades back that “it takes a village” applies just as much in our personal lives as it does in issues of social justice. This of course, is what I like most about the concept of hospice care, the mission articulated by Dame Cecily Saunders decades ago, to “not only help you to die well but to live until you die.” That is dignity.
So listen to what Lady Gaga was probably not saying, as I let her have the last word, “You can’t have my heart, and you won’t use my mind, but do what you want with my body.”