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Living All the Way

Reflections on the Greek myth of Tithonus

Eos, goddess of the dawn, and Tithonus, a handsome, young, mortal man, fell in love. Realizing that her young lover would one day meet death while she, as a goddess, lived on, Eos petitioned Zeus to grant immortality to Tithonus. Eternal youth for Tithonus was not part of her request, however, and perhaps feeling jealous of Tithonus and his affections from a goddess, Zeus granted the petition without protecting Tithonus from the bodily consequences of aging. Tithonus' fate was to live on while his body withered, his abilities diminished and his potential to enjoy life and meaningfully relate to others disappeared. In a sense, his body was dying but he was not able to receive the release and relief of death.

It is a fear for many of us and especially for those in later years-the fear of becoming as Tithonus, dying slowly but not allowed to die. Death is a fear for most, but with the true blessings of advances in medicines, treatments and life-sustaining technologies, there is also the fear of being trapped somewhere between meaningful living and death. It's not that we want strangers to make our decisions for us when we are unable to speak for ourselves, the misguided hysteria of death panels aside. It's the perspective that there are things worse than dying and that in the end death will come despite. The question becomes how we will live with the reality of our death. For some it's not death that is most disturbing but the possibility of being stuck and excessively prolonging the experience of dying. There can come a time where our continued existence seems more an extension of dying than an extension of living.

Before we make a desperate, Tithonus-like bargain for extended quantity of life, it would be helpful to take some time to consider what life may be like in that extension. This is intimidating and we may need someone with a cool head and a warm heart to be with us and help us understand and consider the possible consequences of the different paths we could choose. Wanting the best for themselves and each other and motivated by a strong fear of death, Eos and Tithonus lost their way with tragic and avoidable consequences. They did not understand what they were choosing.

An old and sadly familiar story. I wonder if they would have been willing to talk with a palliative care team.

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