The Jahi McMath saga is yet another symptom of Americans' discomfort in dealing with death.
The taboo in our culture forces loved ones at the most emotionally volatile of times to suddenly confront realities of death long held in denial. No wonder reason and understanding can be casualties.
In happy times, who wants to read about the science of death or talk over dinner about dying? It's easier to block it out. But Jahi's tragedy is another call for adults of all ages to improve their understanding of death, think about what they want for themselves and, most important, talk with loved ones about it.
Perhaps Jahi's story can awaken more people to this need — if only to explore the suddenly hot topic of brain death.
This newspaper confronted the subject of death head-on in 2012 with a brilliant series of articles by Lisa Krieger called, “The Cost of Dying.” It explored end-of-life situations that might have been different if people had felt comfortable talking about them earlier.
These were not sudden deaths like Jahi's, for which parents can never fully prepare. But a societal change in how we talk about death could make rare tragedies like this a little easier to handle.
Theologians, psychologists and medical professionals agree that we do ourselves no favor as a culture by making death as invisible as possible. The social taboo blocks learning opportunities on something everyone faces, first for others and ultimately for themselves.
About 2.5 million Americans die each year. The leading causes are heart disease (600,000), cancer (575,000), chronic lower respiratory diseases (140,000), stroke (130,000) and accidents (120,000). Brain death, usually from a traumatic head injury or a lack of oxygen to the brain, accounts for less than 1 percent of deaths, or 15,000-20,000 a year.
Jahi's case has some speculating that brain death will be a major ethical issue in America, like abortion. It's unlikely, and not only because it is rare.
There is no deep division over brain death as there is over abortion. While some question the standard or don't believe doctors, there is broad consensus not only in scientific but also religious communities on its finality.
An Internet search of “brain death recoveries” yields a spate of stories about people who “beat the odds.” Some cases have been misdiagnosed, but many stem from misuse of the term.
Brain death is the end of all activity in the brain and brain stem, which is the main control center for bodily functions including breathing and heart rate. But some use the term to describe a coma or a persistent vegetative state, in which the brain stem is still functioning. This was the fate of Terri Schiavo.
The death of the brain is irreversible. That's why it is the legal standard for death in most of the country. And it is generally accepted even by anti-abortion institutions such as the Catholic Church.
Pope John Paul II once said organ donation, which commonly occurs after someone is declared brain dead, was “particularly praiseworthy.” Pope Benedict XVI reportedly responded to questions about the morality of organ donation by showing his organ-donor card.
There is debate among some Catholic ethicists about whether organs should be removed before the heart stops beating, even if it is kept going by a machine. But there is no cause for serious debate about the possibility of recovering from brain death.
Scientists still struggle to understand the mysteries of the brain and human consciousness. A team of British researchers may have found a way to prevent the death of brain tissue, a breakthrough for Alzheimer's. But preventing death is different from reversing it.
Have we convinced doubters here? Probably not. Have we inspired anyone to break the taboo and start talking about death with their families?
We hope so. We will keep trying.