Death cannot be truly understood. Death is better understood within the soul, our essential being, and our heart. In a culture where dying and death is feared, we have no verbal language to express the immensity of dying, death or grief; no aptitude to be a faithful witness or to comprehend how it feels to be dying. What we most profoundly think and trust, what we passionately love, fear, or desire, undeniably escapes sufficient verbalization— as with death.
Thus, few ponder how one approaches death, or lives in fear, possessing the certain knowledge that death awaits. We suffer from what I call a death illiteracy. We live knowing that everything dies. Like the sun, it's a fact of life. And like the sun, we tend not to look right at it. Unless you've experienced a recent death, it's probably not something you discuss. The fear of death haunts us like nothing else. All other fears — such as public speaking, centipedes and heights — pale in comparison. So, we don't really talk about it. We are not alone; death has haunted most living souls throughout time. For thousands of years, most ancient and prevailing cultural mythologies, world religions, and faiths have assisted humanity in understanding such sublime mysteries of life as the reconciliation of consciousness with death. For more than thirty years, I have accompanied the dying to the threshold beyond which they must cross alone. Having had the privilege of working with hundreds of souls as a Hospice social worker, educator, End of Life Counselor, Death Doula, Ordained Minister, and Founder of The HeartWay, an organization dedicated to Embracing Life thru Honoring Death, I have witnessed the dying, their families, and their caregivers struggle to understand the sublime mysteries of life through the unavoidable approach of death. Without a doubt, when clients contemplate their mortality; participate in conversations with their loved ones, doctors, and trusted friends about their fears, wishes, and desires about death; and develop an intimate relationship with death—life is transformed. Each sacred brush with death sanctions a glimpse into the great mystery of this life. I have not found a guide book, although there are many written, that provides all the answers to understanding the sublime mysteries in life and death. Dying is a realm with no experts, but my experience reveals that you can reduce the suffering by being as present as possible to death and dying. There is much to be gained from being present throughout all of our life. I do know that people experience more complex grief when they have not had the opportunity to say good-bye, share their love, and confront their fears. The conversation within the bounds of death is a lifelong relationship and more than can be summed up with words alone.
I'm not afraid of death. It's the stake one puts up in order to play the game of life. ~ Jean Giraudoux
May we never forget that Death beckons us to say good-bye, reconcile our relationships, find meaning, grieve our losses and love each other.
From the diaries of my work, I offer you a few tools that I continue to utilize in helping my clients prepare for the challenges that arise within dying, death, and the grief that follows:
Contemplating death changes how we relate to others and how we live our lives. The realization and acceptance that we will die reveals the preciousness of human life. Contemplation has a profoundly transformative effect. It helps us to wake up, deepen our connections, and come more alive as our priorities come more clearly into focus. What do you really want to do with your life? If we truly have an embodied knowledge that we will die—then we inevitably become more fully alive. Death inspires life.
Means of contemplation:
Talk, write, meditate, and observe death. Take the time to become clearer within yourself of your triggers, fears, denials, and deep feelings about death. When you have an intimate relationship with Death—one becomes more at ease with death and fears begin to melt away.
- Journal your thoughts, understanding, and emotions around death. Deliberate on your fears, concerns, and curiosities about dying, death, and leaving this life.
- If appropriate, seek support of a therapist, grief counselor, or beloved confidant to help nurture your contemplations
- Give yourself permission to feel any emotion including sadness, anger, or fear.
- Let the walls down and explore what is revealed. You may be very surprised.
As Jean Giraudoux said, “I'm not afraid of death. It's the stake one puts up in order to play the game of life." We also don’t wish to talk about the death. Over 80 percent of Americans think it’s important to share their wishes, but fewer than 30 percent of us actually do it. Not talking about death leaves everyone blindsided. If we don’t talk about our death, fears, wishes, desires, and hopes we risk leaving our loved ones in the dark. Our silence often creates a burden beyond comprehension as our loved ones prepare to honor our life and death. By failing to talk about it, we may even inadvertently create discord and cause lasting damage to the relationships between the people we love most. Our silence may end up encumbering them with remorse or regret because they didn’t know what to do to honor our wishes. It’s most often what we don’t say that hurts us. These conversations will inspire connection, intimacy, and love.
Means to have the conversation:
- Set up a gathering time with your family for a cup of tea or a shared meal with the intention of having the conversation about death and dying.
- Know that the conversation is another way of loving yourself and your loved ones.
- Utilize tools to help nurture the conversation with your family such as Circle of Life board games, My Gift of Grace, or The Conversation Game.
- Seek council, if needed, to facilitate the conversation with your loved ones.
I encourage you to include your children in the conversation. They are our best teachers when it comes to being open, honest and more fearless about death.
Here is list of some organizations that are having these conversations in a safe, supportive, and nurturing environment. I have led Death Café’s for the last three years in California and I continue to witness an incredible transformation in those that attend the café. We discover that we are not alone with our thoughts and fears at the café. The death café is a place with a relaxed, open, and safe atmosphere where you are invited to share your contemplations about life and death. This café is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session. Our objective is to increase awareness of death with a view towards helping individuals make the most of their finite lives.
For information about our local Death Café, call 949.433.8228 or visit deathcafe.com.
Practical Concerns of Dying
Another way to honor yourself and your loved ones is to decide what happens to you before, during, and after death. Planning for your death has two parts: The first is preparation for the dying process. The second is what happens after you die. There is an incredible wealth of resources when it comes to the practical aspect of completing our life. One way that I have found helpful in weeding through the plethora of information is to start with contemplating death and having the conversation about your feelings. After you have taken time to explore your thoughts and feelings then the practical matters will be accomplished with greater ease.
- Designate what happens to you if you are unable to care for yourself
- Designate Power of Attorney for health care and finances. This is the process of selecting someone else to make decisions for you if you are unable. It is important to discuss your wishes with your designee to assure that they are in agreement to follow through on your wishes.
- Write your will or establish a trust for your cherished material goods. This is the process of deciding how your assets will be divided up.
- Organize your finances, debts, passwords, files, etc. This will make it much easier for those you leave behind.
- Create your funeral or memorial service
- Write personal love letters to your loved ones
- What are your wishes for how your body is handled after you die? Do you want a burial or a cremation? And if you want a burial, are there any specific instructions that you’d like those left behind to follow.
These are only a few of the questions to consider when preparing for your death. You may seek expertise in each of the above areas of concerns. There is no easy way or foolproof way to prepare for your death or the death of a loved one. There are however steps you can take before and after a death to help process such a painful experience.
At the end of life, the only thing that matters is—Love. May death inspire your life.