Posts in Conscious Living

The Intimacy of Death

Working at a Hospice I asked a woman: “What’s it like to know you are dying?” she responded “what is it like pretending you aren’t?”

While sitting in a chemotherapy waiting room earlier this year, I thought to myself “some of these people are actively dying.” A feeling of sadness overwhelmed me and a wee bit of anxiety crept inside my chest. A few moments later, my thoughts shifted to “we are all dying.” In that awareness, the anxiety began to dissipate.

It is so easy to walk around this world with the illusion that we will live forever. In fact, longevity is what most humans strive for. This false idea that humans are immortal covers up the sweetness and palpable intimacy of life. The journey of exploration into the intimacy of life begins with a conscious awareness of death. In this acknowledgement of death, we are free to live more fully.

Here are some ways to become more intimate with death:

  1. Make a list of your fears around death and discuss them with a family member or friend.
  2. Host a death dinner and invite your closest friends to share their experiences and thoughts on death.
  3. Educate yourself about end-of-life care and the death process.  Click Here for a resource list to get you started.
  4. Reserve a time to reflect on what mortality means to you. A good question to start with: If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do differently today?

Looking through the lens of mortality, life takes on a whole new meaning. One’s day-to-day experience of life no longer relies solely on the mind, but of the senses too. As fleeting as life is, this present moment living, generated by the awareness of death, renders great stillness. In these moments, life and death have no separation. They are merely dancing partners, shifting the lead according to one’s individual song of life.

Talking About Death – When Do We Begin?

Death showed up at my door at a rather young age. I was entering my early 20’s, where life was nearly beginning and death was just a foggy, distant thought. Aside from that one time when I made my childhood acting debut in a funeral education video, I hadn’t really paid death much attention. The other time I recall being curious about death was during the infrequent and brief drives past the cemetery, when my siblings and I would hold our breath out of fear of the old urban legend.

In our society, many individuals don’t even begin thinking about death until they are greeted by it on a personal level. This typically occurs in the loss of a pet, loved one, or dear friend. In some cases, people won’t begin thinking about death and their immortality until they are faced with a life-threatening illness.

Many, if not most people experience some degree of fear and/or anxiety in relationship to death. It is one of the most common fears and it also happens to be one of the least talked about. Fear is quite powerful because it grabs a hold of us and prevents us from speaking openly about it. The success of various types of therapy groups depends on this one key component, for participants to have the willingness and courage to discuss their fears out loud. Through these group exercises’, the fear slowly begins to lessen. Talking about death with family and friends is the best way to relieve some of our anxiety. My dear friend, Michael Hebb, developed a forum to do just that, openly talk about death with the people you love the most.

Death is unpredictable, we don’t know when we will go and we don’t know how. For my dear friend, Coop, it was lung cancer at age 38. For others it will be heart failure at 82.

As a witness to death in my early 20’s, I am living proof that it is never too soon to befriend this mysterious and unpredictable life experience that we will all undergo. I believe that many of us cheat ourselves out of fully living life, by refusing to discuss death until we absolutely have to. It is nearly impossible to experience the richness of life when we are subconsciously clinging to it.

During my time as a hospice volunteer, I witnessed many people on the clinical staff and on the patient end that were full of fear. Some fear is normal and considered healthy, but the question I pose is: wouldn’t it make for a smoother transition if we worked out some of these fears before witnessing and experiencing our own death?

As the baby boomers become our oldest aging population, it is important that we take the time to discuss end-of-life concerns such as, quality of life verse quantity, dying with dignity, dying in the home vs. the hospital, etc. These are topics that are being discussed more and more, however the need for education and discussion around end-of-life care in our society is higher than ever. Lives are depending on it.

It is concerning that our society continues to put the “hush” on death when it is a common experience that links us all together. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, wrote On Death and Dying to bridge the in-house scientific/academic conversations about death and dying and the gaping need for the information and discussion by the general public. As this book continues to engage people in the 21st century, there are still a lot of gaps that need to be filled.

A simple awareness of death can set this process in motion. No matter how old we are, it is never too soon to educate ourselves on something we will all become intimate with, some of us sooner than later.

At The Table With Love & Death

This morning I had a flash back to last week’s hospice visit where I sat across from a woman who, as they refer in the hospice field, is “actively dying”. Across from her and next to me sat this woman’s beloved husband of 60 years.  Between the two of them, they have 180+ years of life on this planet.

The sweetest part about being with this couple is getting to witness how 60 years of unconditional love blossoms, especially when one of the pair is nearing the end of life. This little wise man shared stories of their life together and he was sure to note that their marriage had experienced many peaks and valleys. He then sealed all of the years together so elegantly with his robust bright eyed smile.

Of all the lunch dates I have been on, this was perhaps one of the most meaningful. Stripping down our roles and physical conditions, it became clear that we were all sitting at the table with two honored guest- Love & Death.

It was pretty magical, yet also very simplistic. We allowed ourselves to be present in the moment, flowing in and out of moments of talking and silence. Everything felt just right. There was nothing to fix, nothing to change, and there was definitely no holding back. We all just met each other in the spaces we were in. It was perfect.

As I recalled this lunch date, I got to thinking about my own impending death. My mind often wonders to what this big adventure is all about, or in what fashion I will be departing. I’m not about to say that I am fearless when it comes to death, I too feel a sense of clinging to life and some sadness when I contemplate my death and the death of those whom I adore.

But you know, this lunch meeting with love and death has got me thinking…Perhaps when we go out, it’s like sitting down at the table with love and death. Before your bottom grazes the surface of the seat, your entire being is immersed in an unconditional love that you have only ever touched the surface of. You look death in the eyes, and then you glance over to love. And suddenly you have an absolute knowing that is all the same. They are not separate. Suddenly all of our fears and concerns melt away and we become one with love.

My beloved teacher Ram Dass equates the experience of death as “taking off a tight shoe”. The more I am sitting with death,  I am slowly beginning to see what he means. But yes, I still have a mighty long way to go.

Speaking of sitting at the table with death, are you familiar with the Death Over Dinner project? I think this project is fabulous because it invites us to sit down with love & death, and you all know how I feel about that experience! But let us remember, that conversations of death can happen anywhere…not just over the table. Conversations about death should not be confined to a time or place.

The more I embrace my life more fully, the less scary death feels. Ya know, I really think the Buddha was on to something when he shared the following:

“The Buddha taught there is no birth, there is no death; there is no coming, there is no going; there is no same, there is no different; there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.”

Death Is a Great Teacher

When asked the other day about my first experience with death, this was my response:

In the third grade I eagerly volunteered to be a part of a death education film for the Catholic Church. I had not yet developed much of a concept of what death was at that time, in fact I really don’t think it occurred to me what I had actually signed up for, I just knew I would get to miss class and have pizza. In my 11 year old mind, I hit the jackpot!

Little did I know at that time, death would become my greatest teacher.

Since then, death has challenged me, torn me open, brought up my worst fears, kept me up at night, introduced me to grief, put me on a roller coaster of emotions, and it’s knocked me down right when I thought I was strong enough to stand on my own.

Some kind of teacher right?

Well, death has also forced me into the moment, filled my heart with a boundless amount of love, introduced me to inner peace, showed me the beauty of emotions and the power and liberation of a good cry, and how to reach out for a helping hand- giving up my defiant independent attitude.

Death is a teacher that will visit each and every one us one day, guaranteed. Just as we prepare a nursery for the birth of a new baby, may we also prepare the space within our hearts for death, befriending this teacher long before our time to leave the body comes.

I love these words of wisdom from Ram Dass written in Polishing The Mirror:

“The only real preparation for death is the moment-to-moment process of life. When you are fully present in the moment, there is no anticipatory fear, no anxiety, because you are just here and now, not in the future. When we are resting in our souls, death is just another closing chapter in a book.”

My wish is for everyone to rest in the moment, the sacred space where life and death merge together, leaving only one thing in it’s place, eternal love.

“Love & death are magnificent gifts which many of us leave unopened.”  -Rilke