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Let’s Talk About Death

This piece by José Garza was originally published by Impacto Latin News. Click here to read the op-ed in Spanish. Haga clic aquí para leer el editorial en español.

Why is it so hard for Latinos to talk about death when it’s a part of life?

Weren’t we raised in a culture known for honoring our departed at the cemetery with their favorite foods and drinks? Aren’t we the ones who mock death by painting ourselves as colorful skeletons?

Yes and yes.

But when it’s time to talk about death, too many of my Latino brothers and sisters simply shut down.

With Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead, just around the corner, it is an opportune time to talk about death and how to prepare for it.

It was certainly a conversation my wife, Nohemi, had with our family when she was diagnosed with cancer.

Painful death

We knew something was wrong when Nohemi complained of a numb and swollen leg. But our world came to a halt when we got the news about the cause: ovarian cancer. And it was terminal. Nohemi was a real fighter, and she did everything to try to beat the cancer. But after various rounds of chemotherapy, nausea and nonstop vomiting, Nohemi was placed in hospice.

She no longer had to endure catheters and needles poking through her frail body. Yet Nohemi was still suffering.

She was so weak. My heart sank as I brushed her teeth. The reflection in the mirror was not even a shell of the wonderful woman I married 41 years ago. I felt her pain. I felt my pain.

“Please, God, take me,” she would say. “Why don’t you just take me home?”

Medical aid in dying

That is when I fully came to understand the need for the option of medical aid in dying, something I would want available in case I was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I don’t want to go through a horrific dying process of leaving my children images of me suffering. I don’t want to leave the burden of them having to make a decision about my last days.

I am relieved to know the New York state Legislature is considering a bill to allow mentally capable, terminally ill adults to request a doctor’s prescription for medication that they can decide to take to stop unbearable end-of-life suffering and die gently.

There are several states that allow this peaceful option for terminally ill adults: California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Colorado has a statewide ballot initiative to pass such legislation, and Washington, D.C., also has a critical vote in the coming weeks. I hope these states along with New York and eventually the rest of the United States follow their lead.

Not a sin

It offends me to hear people refer to medical aid in dying as “an act against God.”  Why would a merciful God of love want his children to suffer? I believe God does not judge an individual who wants to end their intolerable pain.

While this option may not be for everyone, I believe it is not for Christians to judge others. I do not want our legislators to prevent this option from being available to those who would prefer to end their pain and suffering in their final days.

Honoring the dead

Death is a part of life, and there is nothing somber or macabre about celebrating this event so ingrained in our Mexican and other Latino cultures. Dia de los Muertos is a time to celebrate our departed as spirits from another world to be with those who are living. Our deceased don’t come to scare or haunt us as we believe Halloween spirits do.

So as we prepare to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, let’s think of our strong sense of love and respect for our departed. Let’s celebrate the continuance of life and our family relationships. Let’s talk about death and even find humor in it, lose some of our fear of it, and remind ourselves that death is simply a part of life.

Jose Garza is former executive director of East Harlem Business Capital Corporation.