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The inevitability of Plan B

When I worked as a hospice social worker, I used to spend a lot of time explaining to clients and people I knew what my job entailed. No one seemed to understand why they might need a social worker. That was because most people in our society don’t understand the need to prepare for their final transition. And most people don’t prepare.

I remember a 100-year-old lady named Margo. Although she often wondered out loud why she was still here, in the next breath she might say, “I’m thinking I might need to go out and look for a job.”

Although Margo likely was exhibiting a little dementia, this attitude is not uncommon. People would rather go look for a job than face their dying.

Most spiritual traditions hold the conviction that there is something after this life. Some of them, like the Tibetan Buddhist path, emphasize the need to prepare for the transition from this life to the next and the need to live this life with full awareness of death.

Soyal Rinpoche, author of "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," postulates that the denial of death has disastrous effects on the planet and leads to short-term, instant-gratification behaviors.

Though I didn’t usually address the spiritual aspects of living and dying with folks, my job as a social worker was about preparation — a task that would have been easier if our society didn’t seem to teach denial of death as the best path.

So part of my assistance was with final details and planning, and if there was still time, on how staying at home could happen — what kind of caregiving might be needed, etc. If folks were open to it, we could address their emotional preparation, as well.

I don’t know how many times I asked someone how they were going to manage at home when they could no longer care for themselves, only to have the person admit they had never thought about this. Our denial in this country is pretty complete. We really don’t think we’re going to die.

At dinner one night, I was talking to a friend who asked me what my job involved. I tried to explain to her that I helped folks with Plan B.

She smiled and asked, “So Plan A is to live independently until you just go to bed one night and don’t wake up?”

I thought a moment before I corrected her.

“No,” I said, “Plan A is not to die. I help them with Plan B.”