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Aesthetic Experiences at the End of Life

What is the value of aesthetic experience near the end of life?

This question has been on my mind as I’ve been thinking about a character from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. This is the story of ex-slave Sethe trying to live a new, free life while haunted by the ugliness of the past, not the least of which was her murdering her own daughter to save her from returning to slavery.

One memorable character is Baby Suggs, the protagonist’s mother-in-law and the matriarch of Sethe’s new home in Ohio. At the beginning of the novel, Baby Suggs is dying, and she is craving color:

Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it…Her past had been like her present – intolerable – and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color.

“Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don’t.”

And Sethe would oblige her with anything from fabric to her own tongue. (p. 4)

Why would a person spend her final days craving color? By the end of the novel, Sethe thinks she knows:

Now I know why Baby Suggs pondered color her last years. She never had time to see, let alone enjoy it before. Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when she died. (p. 237)

Besides the fact that Beloved is a masterpiece worth reading for many reasons, I think this novel also makes a powerful statement about experiencing beauty amid the ugliness of life. There is no doubt that the characters in this novel saw a lot of ugliness, without the time to consider beauty – to “stop and smell the roses,” as we might say.

By the end of her life, though, Baby Suggs desired little but to ponder color. On some level, she needed to see and absorb the beauty of the world that had given her a lifetime of ugliness, and she used the remaining energy she had to do so.

We need beauty, too.

Most of us probably haven’t experienced ugliness on the level of slavery, but each of us does go through excruciatingly difficult times, whether that is the pain of cancer, the slow decline of Alzheimer’s disease, the grief that follows the death of a spouse or child, the shame of physical or sexual abuse, or the myriad other hurts that come with life on this planet. And, eventually, all of us have to face the uncertainty and fear that comes with the end of life.

In hospice care, a significant amount of attention is given to decreasing and preventing physical pain. In fact, hospice and palliative care physicians and nurses are experts in using medicine to help people stay comfortable. Hospice professionals do not stop at preventing physical pain, however. The hospice team includes social workers, chaplains, volunteers, home health aides, and (increasingly) music therapists to help people end life well. One recent study showed that these teams, working together with the patient and their family, provide a lot of non-pharmacological care in the very last days of life, including “creating an aesthetic, safe, and pleasing environment.”

The researchers expressed some surprise that so much time was spent on creating an aesthetically-pleasing environment in a person’s final days, but I’m not surprised. Sometimes I have the privilege of providing some beauty through music during a person’s final days. It makes a difference. So can a bouquet of flowers or a homemade quilt or a nice view out the window.

Appreciating beauty in the world is part of what makes us human, so it’s no surprise that aesthetic experiences can help us end life well.

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