On Death

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?