by Elaine Voci
There are a lot of people who shy away from any talk about death; they think such conversations are “morbid” and don’t serve any purpose other than to make people feel uncomfortable. They are reluctant to accept the impermanence of life which shows us that nothing lasts forever, nor is it meant to. They resist talking about loss and sorrow because it reminds them of their own inherent mortality and they may even feel, superstitiously, that talking about death will hasten its appearance in their life.
I see it differently: I think that death and life are two sides of the same coin, so whenever we talk about death, we’re also talking about life.
I had already lived through the loss of my parents, the loss of my husband to suicide, as well as my own experience with cancer, and a near-death experience from a serious car accident, when I was trained as a hospice volunteer. After completing the program, I was chosen to serve as a co-facilitator of a bereavement support group for widows and widowers. Twice a month, over a period of four years, we met for wide-ranging conversations about death, dying, grief, grieving, and life after death; we honored the belief that “death ends a life, not a relationship.”
A few years later, I was studying to become a Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant ® and was introduced to the concept of Death Cafes when the school hosted one for students and graduates. Once again, I found myself in a setting where groups of people were talking about death, life, grief, funerals, celebrations of life, and the role that ritual and ceremony play in honoring life’s milestones.
- We prepare for many significant life transitions, investing time and treasure in recognizing births, weddings, graduations, and retirement, yet we actively avoid and fail to prepare for dying – something that we will each do one day. I prefer to accept and act on the mildly humorous truth that, “No one gets out of life alive” by talking about death, reading about it, listening to others’ opinions, thoughts and feelings about it. This preparation brings me comfort and a sense of contentment. It deepens me, and makes me fall in love with life, again and again.
- When two people get together and talk about death it unites them in a special way and brings a quality of the sacred into their conversation. By sharing life experiences, asking questions and listening to one another, each is strengthened and feels less alone. This is one of the best parts of attending a Death Café or participating in a Conscious Aging class – the opportunity to intentionally talk with others who are like-minded and to ask questions and share thoughts that bring death out of the shadows.
- When we don’t allow death into our conversations, and we actively work to deny its presence in our lives, that is what seems really morbid from my perspective. This was best expressed by Woody Allen who famously said, “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens!” When we bring it into the open, death takes its place as an important, but natural, part of the human life cycle. We are each mortal beings; we are born into a family and a world, and we will each die one day, leaving our family and the world behind. By trying to ignore this reality, we give death far more power than it deserves.
- Once we accept what cannot be undone – that our days are numbered – we are then free to choose to live the length and width of our lives and to treasure each day as the gift it is. Like all stories, our lives have a beginning and an end. Facing death means we can prepare for it while we are healthy and alive, so that we don’t waste a single chance to live an awesome and purposeful life, and to show our love to those who are important to us. As my father used to say, “Don’t wait to give flowers until the funeral; give bouquets now while the person is alive.”
- I see my own death as a universal human experience that is also a deeply personal reminder to live authentically with gratitude and conscious awareness. Being mindful of the impermanent nature of life makes it easier for me to focus on what truly matters most and to let other things fall by the wayside. (A related saying I share in life coaching fits well here: “We don’t have to attend every argument we’re invited to!”)
- I see the death of each person that I love as a loss that will crack my heart open to give and receive more love. I see their death as a summons to love others completely, giving my heartfelt energy while I have the chance to do it. I am committed to making happy memories that will last a lifetime, and bringing comfort and joy to those so dearly loved, right now, today.
- If we talk about death with our children in age-appropriate ways from the time they are young, then they can learn to care more about life and can be helped to erase the TV and video game- driven fears about their own death and the death of loved ones. We have an obligation to wrest this influence away from TV and media sources and exercise our place as parents and grandparents so that our children can turn to us when they have questions. We can talk things over, and help educate them with factual, sensitive and loving communications. We can share stories to inspire and strengthen them; we can teach them the power of memories to keep people alive in their hearts; and we can remind them that resilience is enduring, and hard-wired into human beings.
- Our culture worships youth, and dreads old age; these attitudes impact the elderly who are too often separated from society and warehoused in sterile environments devoid of natural beauty, flowers, animals, and the younger generation. Such segregation is unnatural and saddens me; a society “…that equates aging with the tragic loss of youthful vigor makes the idea of aging as a virtue hard to accept… and the belief persists that old age is a fatal defect that must be avoided for as long as possible.” (What are Old People For? by William Thomas, M.D.)
- When our society views death as the feared “opponent” in a “battle” to be waged and won, then doctors and medical professionals make it a priority to combat and forestall death. Families, too, make unrealistic demands to preserve life at all costs. A hundred years ago, pneumonia was called the “old man’s friend” because it often was the natural cause of death in the elderly. Then penicillin was invented and old people began to recover from pneumonia, rather than succumb to it. New drug treatments and surgical interventions have been blessings, but have also given us ways to keep the heart beating even if the mind is no longer functioning. Hugely expensive hospital care and needless suffering results because we push death away, rather than invite it to a graceful final dance with palliative care and loving companionship to help dying be pain-free and dignified. It pleases me that the concept of “my life, my death, my choice” is increasingly what governs individual and family decisions at the end of life.
- Dying is inevitable but living is not. I recently heard that on a TED talk by Wayne Earl, whose teenage daughter died of cancer and inspired Indiana author John Green to write “The Fault in our Stars.” He pointed out that death is not the most powerful thing in life – love is the most powerful thing in life. Even after we die, love will go on in the memories of those who knew and loved us. In the words of Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
So, I am focused on celebrating life and that’s why I want to talk about death. I believe that the reason why Death Cafes, like the one I facilitate, are rising organically around the world in large numbers (5,000 at last count) is because more and more people want to talk about death, dying and end of life issues. They are eager to rid themselves of the fear of death and they want to make death a topic of ordinary conversation – in order to live with greater passion, more choices, and increased mindfulness.
We all walk on earth knowing that death is near us at all times, and that nothing in life stays the same or lasts forever. We are meant to live with continual transitions. We can find comfort in the words of Kahlil Gibran, the famous Lebanese poet, who wrote, “If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
© 2018 Elaine Voci Life Skills Coaching, LLC
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