This past weekend I had a meaningful discussion with my son Matt on several death-related issues to include wills and advanced directives. It was the kind of discussion I’d had with my own father. The information was invaluable when he crossed over.
But later Matt pointed out that we had tap-danced around the issue of death itself. When it comes to death, is there anything really to talk about?
I have been blessed with several great teachers on death, ranging from a 23-year-old woman facing cancer to several men facing AIDS to my own mother. All have taught me that, while we have no choice about when we die, we do have a choice as to how we face it. The young woman above, being so young, had outcries of anger yet found peace at the very end. When I asked one man who’d been told his HIV had progressed to AIDS how he wanted to face death, he said “I want to look forward to stepping into the light”. And my mother was quite stoic as the cancer progressed but said simply “My bags are packed and I’m going to see my girls (my deceased sisters).” Each response was different yet each challenges me. How do I face death?
I’ve long been drawn to two approaches to death. One comes to me from poet Dylan Thomas as he exhorts his father: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Thomas’ words encourage me to concede as little as possible to illness and death. His words encourage me to resist fear and despair.
Yet I also am drawn to Emily Dickinson’s gentle words: “Because I could not stop for Death –/He kindly stopped for me — The Carriage held but just Ourselves –/And Immortality.” A gentle acceptance is suggested here. The peacefulness of this leave-taking stands in contrast to Thomas’ desire for his father to rage.
Why reflect on death? It challenges me to face the many ways I take time for granted, putting things off because “there’s always time.”
It challenges me to face the many ways I’ve taking my body and my health for granted and to treat my physical self better not out of fear but out of honor. It puts a different spin on the calling to treat our bodies as Temples of the Holy Spirit.
Finally it challenges me to face squarely an area of serious doubt in my life. What do I believe about an afterlife and do those differences matter in how I live my life here? For years, fear of the afterlife and specifically of hell drove my behavior. I believe I’ve moved beyond that but still find myself wondering what if anything is there to cross over to? It is easier to avoid such questions but the ultimate reality of my death keeps calling me back to them.
So I will continue to rage against the dying of the light while at the same time hoping that, when my time comes, I will climb into Death’s carriage peacefully looking forward to the Light.
Reflections: What reflections do you have about your own death and how you want to face it?
What has been most helpful to me in coming to terms with death is the Buddhist perspective. As part of their training, many Buddhist monks are asked to spend time watching people die or simply spend time (sometimes hours) in silence just sitting with dead people. The idea is to contemplate death to the point of understanding on the deepest level that death is a part of life. The human ego wants to rage as per Dylan Thomas whereas the soul grasps the reality that there is no death but only transition to another form. A major Buddhist principle regarding death is the notion of “dying before we die” which simply means that we embrace death in its fullness in a variety of ways in order to prepare for accepting a literal death. This means that we open to the “little deaths” of our daily lives—the disappointments, losses, frustrations, and things we can’t control as a way of practicing for the “big death” at the end of our lives. I don’t want to die, and my body has as much animal instinct to survive as anyone else, but another part of me knows that death is the end of one thing and the beginning of something else, and my best preparation for it is to surrender as much as possible to each “little” death.
its not a deep thought but i look forward to sharing time with friendswho are gone from this side of life forever
It sounds like Matt may also be a psychologist? Psychologists ask, “What is the meaning of death? Does death destroy the meaning of life?”. I give your profession credit for asking the right questions. As a nurse I was not able to ask the questions but I was with several people (including my father) as they slipped out of their worldly bodies. I asked my father if he was afraid of death and he said “no”. I believe this was true as he had faced death in two wars which occurred before I was born. I remember his last words were “okay, okay, okay”. It was as though he was reluctantly releasing his hold on life but also saying okay to someone or something on the other side. Something mysterious happens at the moment of death, just as at the moment of birth. But the death mystery is sad to me. I have witnessed animal souls slip away too. As a nurse I also removed the medical equipment from those who had died and wrapped their bodies in a shroud. It does make one very aware of the transitory nature of life and the fact that none of us is promised tomorrow. At the same time I have to live in a certain denial of this fact just to do what one of my psychologist friends told me. He said, “Stop thinking so much and pour the cereal in the bowl”.