Why death is life-affirming (& why we need to talk about it more)

“The art of dying graciously is nowhere advertised, in spite of the fact that its market potential is great.” Milton Mayer It’s a funny thing death, isn’t it? And yet how we ignore it. Which is a shame because death is an extraordinary subject and one I wish we would talk about more.

So here are my 3 reasons why death doesn't have to be seen as morbid, but instead something that is as life-affirming as we could wish.

1. Death inspires us to live deeply & lightly

Many years ago a friend was struggling with alcohol and had decided to stop drinking. After a year or so I asked him if he missed it and he replied, “I miss oblivion.”

Oblivion - is there a better way to describe what happens to us when we die? And I don't mean this in a necessarily bleak way, oblivion can be expansive. If we work with it with awareness, otherwise it is just oblivion.

Often the tendency to be extreme in our lives is simply a desperate urge to know and be known by oblivion. Because this elephant in the room: death, the thing we try and ignore, is also the very thing by which we are most fascinated. The fact that one day we will totally completely disappear and the terror that we can do  nothing about it. So we cling onto this life 'our' friends and 'our' jobs and 'our' homes as if they were 'our' life rafters. Instead of other travelers just travelling thru, till the day comes when our hearts stop beating and this life as we know it ceases to be.

But maybe if we started contemplating death more we would experience our lives more fully. Or at least be more grateful for them. For it is something precious that we are here and that our lives are such mysteries. That life really and truly and is best lived as a mystery. I see this in Eve, in the unfolding mystery of who she is. And how even as her mother, every morning is to meet her again. This young girl, no longer a baby. To witness all the changes – none of which I am in control of, but rather am simply a witness to. This kind of explodes my heart. And I wish I could just live it more.

2. Thinking of death makes us nicer people.

There is a wonderful story of a man who had been given 6 months to live. Before his prognosis he was hell to live with. Cantankerous and controlling. But when the doctors told him “the bad news” and he realised he didn’t have much time left, his priorities shifted. So rather then pulling down the people in his life, he celebrated them. So much so that his relationship bloomed and he really allowed himself to fall in love with his girlfriend and then he went to the doctors and they said, hey “good news, your disease has retreated, you are going to live!” And he was so miserable and sad and shut himself off. And finally after much asking and nudging from friends and family, who were so confused: "Why are you so unhappy? You’re going to live?”

“Because," he said, "I am so scared that I will once again live, forgetting that I am going to die."

3. Memento Mori & get complete with those you love

Telling someone you love them may be hard, but the regret you feel when they die on not saying it, is far greater then any fear you may have of looking a fool.

My grand-father died 12 days ago. He had gone into hospital on the Saturday and died on the Thursday. On the Sunday I flew out to Norway where he’d been on holiday with his wife with my mother and daughter Eve. When we went to see him the next morning it wasn’t certain which way he would go.

“How long do you think I am going to take to get over this?” My grand-father asked me as I sat with him that Monday afternoon.

It wasn’t till the end of Tuesday that we knew that he was dying. My mother and I spoke then about how we talk to grand-pa about this. Do we acknowledge it or not? In the end all I did say was “Don’t hold on grand-pa, you don’t need to hold on for anyone, we love you, this isn’t going to last forever. The worse is over.” Trying to ease his suffering was about as much as I could do. Stroking his head like I stroke my daughters and just repeating myself, desperately wishing I could be of more service to him as I told him I loved him.

I had this thought about 2 months before my grand-father died that I was keeping him at a distance. When I looked at this, I realised it was out of some bizarre self-protection policy I was running in my life. If I don't let my heart love my grand-father as much as it does then I won't hurt so much when he dies. He was 90, it would be soon. And then of course I am standing by his bed as he is dying and all I can feel is love for this man, and yes regret for not every time I saw him really seeing him. Really being with him. My only grand-parent left.

But to have that time with my grand-father as he was dying was precious. To be able to say I love you and thank you and for me I see how your spirit of naughtiness lives on in your great-grand-daughter. Something got complete and though there are tears and I miss him now and I feel him now so much that I wonder if I am just in denial about him not being around at least I got to say good-bye. Because people have died in the past who I didn’t say goodbye to because I was scared and couldn’t face the fact that they were about to go and so I smiled and said goodbye, as if I would see them the next morning. But of course I didn’t. And I carry that loss of a stolen good-bye in my heart. For in not saying goodbye when I had the chance, I wasn't able to honour my grand-mother and acknowledge the life that she lived and the incredible abundance of love that she gave me. For that I am sorry, so sorry and I wish if I could that I could go back to that moment and simply say "good-bye."

“It’s not that I am afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen

Now if you are reading this you are probably assuming or hoping that the author is at peace with the prospect of their own death. Unfortunately you would be wrong.

Let me tell you a little story.

Some years ago a friend over lunch initiated one of those psychological games where you’re asked something terribly simple and the answers you give reflect something incredibly profound.

One of the scenarios we were given was that on waking we find ourselves in a room. The room is white. There are no windows, no door, no exit. We are alone. We were then asked to give 3 words to describe how we felt.

Try it. Give 3 words for how you would feel if you woke in this totally white room, alone and with no possible exit. Our answers, my friend told me, reflect how we relate to death. My 3 words? “Curious, relaxed & convinced that there is a way out.”

Christ… Such is my denial about death that I couldn’t even do the game! I couldn’t give a word; I had to give a whole sentence.

Because well there’s just got to be a way out of this death thing. Because otherwise, well otherwise, I might just have to look a little closer at this idea that I have control of my life and that I am the captain of this ship. I might have to own up to being more vulnerable then I feel comfortable to do so. Because when we acknowledge that we are not in control and have no idea what's going to happen to us in life, or how it's all going to work out, we must admit to the fragility of human existence. And I think nothing terrifies us more.

Throwing the net open…

I remember going back to school after my father had died when I was 7. Apart from a friend, who made a comment about “difficult times,” no one mentioned it. Not even the teachers after class. My fathers death was this weird thing that had happened and the subtext was that no one was to mention 'it' - lets just get on. Which is such a heavy lesson for young people to carry forth into their lives. Because we are so impressionable when we are young and in this instance my peers were being told to blot death out, and for heavens sake don’t mention it lest you make her cry.

And so we all lost the opportunity to learn a few things: how to communicate with someone when death happens; how to provide support to people who are experiencing the loss of loved ones and how to express a need for support when you loose someone whose existence brought meaning to your world.

What valuable lessons they would have been.

But maybe if we reflect a little more on the sheer awesomeness of being alive, of what it is to be living in this galaxy of exploded stars and inhospitable planets we might just be able to live a little more graciously, a little more filled christ we are lucky, what can I do to share that around? And that rather then death being seen as an ending of, it becomes more of a returning - for just as Mark Twain said, "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” I wonder if we can remember that now.