Do you feel some fear around dying? Most people do. I certainly do.
After all, death is something we don’t really understand, haven’t experienced, and is often portrayed in a very creepy way.
I just returned from a conference that helped me see the topic differently, called The Sacred Gateway: Conscious Living, Conscious Dying, and the Journey Beyond.
I discovered that thinking about death can be incredibly life-affirming.
Our culture’s relationship with death is confused
The movie industry loves to show us, often graphically, people being blown up and killed; death has become big entertainment.
Ask people to actually talk about death, though, and they run for cover.
How many of us have prepared in advance for dying (with affairs in order and a living will), considered what we’d prefer when we are dying (what kind of care and any special wishes), and indicated what we’d want after we pass (whom to contact, what kind of memorial, how to care for the body)?
If you haven’t done all of these, you might consider filling out a document called The Five Wishes that asks you to describe your preferences.
Until relatively recently, people in our culture would not talk about birthing in public. Now, that subject is considered normal and acceptable to discuss. Maybe someday, talking about dying (or “deathing” as some like to say) will be comfortable, too.
Imagine a life where death was not something to be feared but recognized and even celebrated as part of the greater whole of life.
I used to invite my leadership class participants to read Tuesdays with Morrie, in which the author visited a beloved professor on his deathbed. That assignment was my way of going beyond management jargon and asking participants to speak from the heart about what mattered most to them. Talking about dying encourages that kind of conversation.
Ironically, as we make our process of death more conscious we make our process of living more precious.
Death surrounds us every day
The conference speakers invited us to notice how death is all around us, an easy and natural part of life.
- In the fall, leaves die off the branches so that new leaves can replace them in the spring. Forest growth is nourished by composted leaves. Dead wood becomes the paper on which we write our words.
- Ideas come to us and ideas die.
- We go to sleep at night, dying away from the day, and return refreshed in the morning. John Updike once wrote,
“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead, so why … be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
- Cells in our bodies support our bones by regularly wiping away dead material (the osteoclasts) so that other cells (osteoblasts) can build new bone material to keep our bones healthy and flexible. (Dealing with osteoporosis has taught me a lot!)
On tragic and sudden deaths
Even a sudden, tragic death can contain within it seeds of new life, especially when we design processes to bring people together to honor the deceased with love and appreciation.
At the conference, a couple of mothers talked about how losing their daughters was the most difficult thing they had ever experienced, and how it was also the most important event in their lives–one that eventually led them to more compassion, creativity, and joy.
Tragedy, sadness, and joy can dance together.
Christina-Taylor Green, 9, broke our national heart on January 9, 2011, when she was killed at a public rally in Tucson, Arizona where she had gone to see US Representative Gabby Giffords. Christina-Taylor, a straight A student and president of her elementary school class, had hoped to go into politics; ironically, she was a “child of hope,” one of the children born on 9-11.
Her beautiful face, seen displayed over media around the world, became a symbol for the message: “Stop the violence, stop the hate.”
Her death was heart-wrenching and tragic. Yet, her death also brought people together to work for a more life-affirming, peaceful and sane-gun world.
I don’t pretend that death or being with the dying process is easy. I went to the conference in part to learn how to better face my mother’s extremely slow journey towards death. She’s going into her twenty-ninth month in hospice care. I don’t have a clue why she’s hanging on; my challenge is to find ways to just be with her, even in her non-communicative state.
We need the arts on the journey
Just knowing about death may not be sufficient to comfort us. We also need art, music, and story to help us understand on some level that transcends what knowledge alone can give us.
The story is about four children, who meet Death at their dining room table when He comes to take their beloved grandmother. Craftily, they try to stall him from his mission. Yet He sits with them kindly, drinking coffee, compassionately explaining:
“Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?”
The children come to understand that this Death is not the grim reaper and that He too has a heart. After their grandmother passes they sneak into her room and hear Death quietly say:
“Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life.”
Then He, too, disappears.
The book ends with the picture of a child gazing out the window through which his Grandmother’s soul had gone.
“Ever after, whenever the children opened a window, they would think of their grandmother. And when the breeze caressed their faces, they could feel her touch.”
Perhaps the biggest message of the conference was this: the way we truly prepare our dying is by living more consciously today and appreciating the gift of life.
As Mary Oliver so poignantly closed her poem In Blackwater Woods:
To live in this world
You must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.