Living More Fully by Talking Death

Can death be a portal to life? By that, I don’t mean having a second chance after a near-death experience. That’s another topic. What if being comfortable with death and dying, we live more fully.

What if by allowing “little deaths” in our life, from letting go of our idea of control or failure to how we define ourselves in a less-than-loving way, we can be more alive in who we are?

We fear death – or maybe the pain and the process of it. That fear can stop us from living presently and more truthfully.

The fear of physical death. The fear of the death of a relationship. The fear of the death of our way of living. The fear of the death of who we think we are. There are many kinds of fear.

I realized it isn’t always “the death” as much as “the leaving behind” that is so difficult. And so this idea of preparing yourself and others is important.

Dr Marilyn Schlitz

I recently attended Denise Love’s Death Doula workshop in Singapore. Talking death brought us together. Some people may feel this is morbid and yes, some people do get judged for having a “morbid fascination” with death. The reasons for attending this workshop were as interesting and as varied as the people who showed up. They showed up for many reasons. For some participants, being a Death Doula wasn’t even on the list of why. At least for now.

Death Doula talking death

Death to most people is a distant event. We have certainly been more desensitized by the media, even as warfare, famine, and natural disasters claims scores of lives. Many of us only confront our own mortality when we hear someone is terminally ill or has died. This someone can be a family member, a friend, a co worker, or even a stranger. When famous people like Princess Diana, Kurt Corbain, Heath Ledger, Prince, David Bowie, Anthony Bourdain died, their deaths united strangers from around the world in grief. Death is death and we are united in this fate. Death is blind to colour, gender, age, and creed.

What about when we read articles about the things the dying regretted?

I would say this is one of those times we want to learn vicariously through others, and not wait to test this theory of deathbed regrets. Hearing what the dying have shared, it certainly put many things in perspective. Many more feelings, anxieties, fears, and anger fall under the category of “small stuff.” Yes, let’s not sweat the small stuff.

Why is it important to speak about death? To our friends and family? With ourselves? Many of us have elderly parents; of course, Death is present even at Birth. Death at any age is a loss to those who remain behind. Yet healing is possible in the shortest of earth time.

Many people are very uncomfortable speaking about death. Some are more (outwardly) cavalier about it. For some, it is very real and a day-to-day reality, such as those who are caregivers.

Speaking to our loved ones about death goes beyond knowing how to honour someone’s last wishes.  It goes beyond what they desire for their funeral arrangements, burial preferences, hospice care, and resuscitation orders, for example.

It is a sharing that can draw people closer, and has therapeutic effect in that we may come face-to-face with fears we did not realize we had. Perhaps more importantly, we share the dreams we have forgotten or never verbalized. Yes, that bucket list.

Coming to terms with one’s mortality is important work, especially for elders today; if we, as elders, don’t come to terms with our mortality, we aren’t going to do endearing work that is necessary for the health of the planet. We’ll just “get old,” wasting years in a protracted dying, “killing time” while we could be living and giving what we know back to the planet.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi1

In a society that allows death to be a part of the life cycle, not tucked away or sanitized, space is naturally created for people to properly grieve and mourn their loss, whatever kind of death. People would feel more comfortable to say what is heartfelt or not to say anything, rather than fumble at what may be appropriate.

People mean well; they just don’t know what to say. How often do people fall back on the old favourites? These can ring hollow for those in pain. The grieving process is a process that is unique to each. For anyone experiencing a loss, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking may be illuminating.

Perhaps the general way we communicate with one another could be more authentic as well?

Some of the Buddhist practices that support the dying process are stabilization and insight practices, practices that are about developing positive qualities, like loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

John Halifax Roshi

In the modern world families can live far apart. Many people – not just the elderly – are or feel isolated. Facing the prospect of death can be daunting. A Death Doula can be that person for many people, for the family of the dying or for the dying him/herself, to walk alongside on the last earthly journey to the unknown. A Death Doula can help the dying and the family find peace and readiness. This is at least what we can all hope for.

The start of that last journey starts today, not with a terminal illness diagnosis for example. In this moment,  our mind and heart can flower, opening to the ebb and flow of life. We can discover an ease and respect for all that is. As William McNamara writes in Christian Mysticism : The Art of the Inner Way,

there is no new life without death of the old. We need to begin with the death of the empirical separative ego and the ego’s world…Death, as the ultimate breakthrough of our life, must involve a kind of violence – a wild human passion – if our proud self-imprisonment is to be broken open.

1 Edward W Bastian and Tina L Staley, Living Fully Dying Well : Reflecting on Death to Find Your Life’s Meaning. Sounds True Inc. 2009, p9

Denise Love began as a Registered Nurse and then a birth doula, before being a death doula, travelling around the world to teach and share her experience.