When I was about 5, my older sister told me a truth about life: “The moment you are born, you begin to die!” I remember standing there stung by her words but not upset or angry. The “little me” knew that she was perfectly correct. Though chronologically she was seven years older than me, I was an older soul than her. She didn’t get the reaction that she was looking for. It started my dance with embracing death.
Decades later my father is dying. We’re not ready for this. Not me, not my siblings and certainly not my parents. It’s the blind leading the blind and there is a huge elephant in the room whose name is Fear. Dealing with each moment and benighted about the dying process, we stumbled along and not very well. “Is this the end? How long? What to do?” My dad had grabbed onto the last straws of medical interventions in an effort to prolong his life. His last words to me were “Chemo killed me.” I understood everything he meant. His fear of death brought him to cling harder onto life — and that never goes well. Clutching onto life only prolongs the dying process. It’s not good.
Later my mother passed away. My biggest take away from these experiences was how dysfunctional our society has become with fear about dying. Fear just stops us in our tracks. We gush over babies but then are struck dumb when facing death and the final goodbyes. They are essentially the same process and deserve the same amount of attention and preparation. Death even more. This shook me so hard that I had to become instrumental in changing this societal dynamic. Be the change, right? Experiencing how fear keeps us from living fully and dying gracefully changed the course of my life. I wanted to be a death doula.
Just a generation or so ago people lived with death. It was a fact of life. They were close to the land and animals. Their lives ebbed and flowed with the changing seasons. Birth and death happened all around them. Family members died at home and people knew what to do about it. Everyone wanted the “Good Death,” which meant being surrounded by love and not suffering in pain. That has changed. Now more removed from nature, we handed over the dying process to strangers and fear began to seep in.
Why are we so afraid to talk about dying? We are all dying all the time. Our bodies slough off dead cells, which enables us to grow and heal in order to be alive. Deep inside we lie to ourselves that immortality is real and death is something we can ignore. Facing our mortality is an act of courage. It shouldn’t be that way. A mature, thoughtful and loving act is to end our denial.
Providing end-of-life guidance relieves our loved ones from wrestling with questions that they may struggle with for the rest of their lives. What are your medical wishes? How would you like your life to be remembered and celebrated? What bills need to be paid and how? Where is your personal and financial world that is protected, locked and unknown on a device? Is there a will or trust fund protecting your assets? Grieving families are forced to deconstruct our daily lives. They are left to imagine what our desires might have been. Making our wishes known is one of the greatest gifts of love we can give. Besides, don’t you want to plan your biggest and final celebration?
Life is a cycle of birth and death. Other cultures believe that spirit is reborn and never dies. Physics teaches us that energy is never destroyed, only transformed. Babies bawl at birth. The womb was safe and secure. Let’s end denial and fear of our next transition just because it’s the “Great Unknown.” Knowledge lessens fear. It’s time we embrace our next biggest act outside of birth — death. Grace and peace will be there for us, and for those we love, so that together we can concentrate on what really matters, saying goodbye. Fear not.