That title is a headline from The Onion and it succinctly calls attention to the elephant in every room: we are all going to die. It’s not a topic we discuss much, but maybe we should, since it’s the one unifying experience of all humanity — indeed, of all life.
I am on a plane somewhere above Nebraska, flying across the country to see my mom. She has dementia. She is dying. We say that of someone we expect to pass soon, but in reality, it’s true for each of us; we are all dying and the fact is we don’t know how or when death will find us. I’m sitting next to a psychotherapist from Washington D.C. whose wife died of cancer this year. Death is hard on the living. Which is perhaps why we try so hard to avoid thinking about it.
I’m not afraid of death. But it’s easy for me to say that, because at the moment, I’m healthy and “too young to die.” If the plane’s engines suddenly stopped roaring and we plunged to the plains below, I’m fairly certain I’d feel afraid. Like most of you, I’m not afraid to BE dead — but I’m not too thrilled at the idea of dying painfully. Like you, I hope to go to sleep one night when I’m really old and feeling complete and simply not wake up, passing gently in the night.
I have a firm belief in an afterlife, confirmed by sacred experience. In fact, I look forward to that life after; I am spending my mortality preparing for it. Perhaps it’s just the transitions that make us nervous. Birthing is beautiful, but difficult and often dangerous, not just for the mother but for the child as well. We don’t generally think of dying as beautiful — at least not in our Western culture — but I suspect we’re missing something important by not recognizing the holiness of the transition from this life to the next. It’s easier to see as we sit by the bedside of a dying loved one who is ready to go, easier than dealing with the shock of the sudden or violent death of someone we love. It brings up the unanswerable question: would you rather know you’re dying, so you have time to say goodbye and get ready, or would you rather go instantly, to minimize the pain?
I have little experience with death first-hand. Much of my ruminations on the subject are theoretical. I am aware of the risk I’m taking to talk about it here, when so many of you have buried parents or children, siblings or friends. Please forgive any boorishness. But Death is on my heart lately because I am not prepared for my mom to die. Are we ever? As I was praying for her yesterday, I could not bring myself to ask God to heal her of her latest physical infirmities. She’s been in the hospital and the rehab unit for almost four weeks now, and Memory Care for months before. She can’t walk. She’s not eating. She’s just aware enough to realize that her life is no life. I wonder if she is trying to die, perhaps unconsciously, but intentionally. And what right do I have to insist she stay, just because I don’t want her to die?
The paradox of our modern world is that we can keep people “alive” indefinitely, but what does that say about our relationship with Death? We spend far more money on end-of-life care than on any other medical need. And for what? When does our regard for Life and our collective fear of Death become untenable?
My mother-in-law died well. She had colon cancer, which she knew would kill her without treatment. She went to a couple of chemotherapy sessions, then said, “No more. I choose to let this cancer take me.” And eight months later, it did. I asked her once, “Are you afraid?” She replied emphatically, “No!” And I could tell she was telling the truth. Toward the end, we could see a new clarity and light in her eyes, as if the veil was already lifted and she could clearly see the glorious path ahead. But that’s all conjecture. I only know that she died in peace, even joy, her life complete. She embraced the transition fearlessly, with faith and a humble eagerness. We mourned her passing, of course. We still miss her, years later. But her example of dying well will remain in my heart forever.
Believing Mormons have a clear, joyous narrative about Life and Death, which makes our funerals not-so-somber and our conversations about Death almost flippant. Some think we are unfeeling because our grief does not generally manifest in extreme ways. But the peace that accompanies our understanding of Death as simply one more transition in our eternal lives is real and soul-sustaining. Our grief is certainly just as real. But we hear enough and have enough inter-world experiences with our dead to make it all somehow bearable, even beautiful.
I have much to learn. Much to yet experience. Our stories of Death are important, the difficult as well as the divine. We will all die, after all, but it’s hard to talk about because we know so little of what’s beyond. I believe those who live well tend to die well, so maybe that’s all we can do. Maybe there’s no difference, really. All we can do, perhaps, is help each other live well and when the time comes, die well.
How would you describe your relationship to Death? What are your fears, your hopes, your experiences?