Gijsbert van Es: the art of dying

Foto Gijsbert van EsMost of us don’t like thinking about death and dying. About 2 or 3 out of 10 people are at ease  talking about death. The rest of us want to keep death, talking and thinking about it, at a distance. A great distance. Out of all people in the theatre, a couple won’t live till Christmas. We just don’t know who. And we don’t want to know. But what if you know? What do you do, what do you think?

Gijsbert van Es, editor for NRC, has spent a lot of time with people who knew that they would die soon and wrote a book about them.

He tells us about sailor Leen, who never got married, never had children, who worked in a factory and enjoyed long biking tours. His motto was: keep it simple. He didn’t fear death, because he believed there is nothing after this life. Esther, mother of two and battling bone cancer, didn’t keep it simple. She fought and lived much longer than expected. She made a bucket list and went swimming with dolphins, traveled to Norway to see the Aurora Borealis, and abseiled down the Rotterdam Euromast. Elisabeth, 57, knew she was dying and only did spectacular things, inspired by Voltaire and his book Candide et l’optimisme, who taught us we ourselves make this world our own best place. This world, our world, our life, our death. Ours. Which is why Laura of thirty something married her boyfriend, and made it her farewell party as well. I call that ‘going out with a bang’. They died as they wanted. Or at least lived the months, weeks before their death the way they wanted.

What can we learn from these ordinary remarkable people?

Well, Van Es says: this.

− When we know the end is near, we all have our different ways to deal with it. No healthcare protocols are wanted at moments like these.
− Most people prefer not to die alone. The people mentioned here died surrounded by people they knew and loved.
− Treat patients with patience, also when death is near.
− Listen to the person who is dying. Ask, don’t tell. Don’t stress principles and protocols. Engage in dialogue. Be a friend. Be a buddy.

And remember Voltaire. ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin’ – make your own world, your now, your own best place. Till the last moment.

A live blog by Marije Elderenbosch