Death Becomes Us
“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.”~ Haruki Murakami
When I turned 50, I felt a tremendous sense of disappointment. I believed that “life begins at fifty!” I believed that my life would be full of exciting changes and new adventures. But I didn’t feel that way. Instead, my fifties were filled with sadness, regret, and depression.
I was keenly aware of the changes that my body was going through. I had a relatively easy transition from perimenopause into menopause — no night sweats, insomnia, or episodes of rage. But during this stage, I felt many intense negative emotions. I grieved the loss of my body’s child-bearing ability. I felt lost, alone, and useless. Bereft. I felt my life was resigned to a foreseeable end. I believed that there was nothing left for me but a slow decline into old age. To me, the opportunities to live a life of adventure, usefulness and purpose seemed limited. I could almost feel death coming toward me.
I know now, that while I wasn’t suffering many physical symptoms of perimenopause, I was entrenched in a morass of mental symptoms. Fortunately, those feelings lifted when I reached my sixties. Whew!
Why am I talking about this?
The one thought that has stayed with me is the realization that I am moving toward death. The difference is, I am not afraid anymore.
At first, the thought of dying would send me into an internal panic. The idea frightened me — deeply. Along with fear, I felt an intense sorrow. I know my death would sadden my daughters, my husband, and even my dog. I would miss so much of their lives — their dreams coming true, the children they might have, the partners they would choose. But accepting my own mortality has eased my fears of dying. Every living thing on this planet is moving inexorably towards death. We, humans, are no exception.
I am grateful to be alive and I am excited now to live this next chapter in my life. But I still have many questions about Death.
What will I feel? Will I experience pain, sadness, or grief? Or, will I have the opposite sense — will I feel comforted, happy, peaceful? Will I simply cease to exist — vanish from this plane, turn to dust, become a star? Or will I pass into a new existence, become part of a whole?
The answers are unknowable.
But the bigger question burning in my mind is “Why aren’t we talking about Death?”
I don’t have much experience with death and loss. My first encounter with the demise of a loved one was the passing of my maternal grandfather. I had never seen a dead body before. His funeral was the first one I attended. I remember the slow procession of people walking up the aisle to peer into the burnished wood coffin. I can still picture him lying motionless on white satin padding, his still, grey face a stranger’s. It was eerie, unsettling, and a little macabre for me, a young teenager. No one prepared me for that experience. The sombre atmosphere, the quietness of the church, punctuated by my grandmother’s sobs, my mother’s tears, her siblings devastated faces. The palpable sense of loss filled the air.
No one warned me of the heaviness of grief that permeated the church, the coldness of the body lying on display. The strangeness of the empty shell looked like a wax rendering of my Gedo’s living form. The absence of him from that waxen hull.
Later, at a relative’s house, there was food, quiet voices, and warm embraces. There were a few moments of laughter and even a little joy. My grandfather was remembered with stories and memories. Family and friends shared their favourite remembrances of the man who was gone from our midst. No one talked about his departure, or what that meant, or the different ways we would each feel his absence.
In North American culture, the topic of death is the last taboo. It scares us. Death is so frightening that we don’t talk about it. We avoid preparing for it. We try to fight against it — to conquer it. We never talk about it. It is as if we fear the mere mention of the dead and dying will bring about our own deaths. And yet…
Death is inevitable. Death is part of life — every living thing dies.
Instead of pretending that death does not exist — instead of trying to conquer it, why not confront the fact that we will die? Why not teach our children that Fluffy is not sleeping but is no longer living? Why not have honest and open conversations about death and dying?
Rethinking our feelings and beliefs about death can lead us to recognize the truth in that old saying, “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We can strive to live our days to the fullest — to seek out and enjoy every glorious minute of our lives.
Arianna Huffington said it well in her article, Here’s Why I Think About Dying Every Day. She says, “By not embracing death and feeling its presence in a daily way, we deny ourselves the clarity, connection and meaning it can inject into our lives and our relationships.”
It’s comforting to know that there exists a (not so) new movement in many parts of the world. Society’s views around dying are opening to more positive attitudes to accepting death as part of life.
The Order of Good Death is one such Death Positive movement. It aims to help people ease their anxiety surrounding death. It encourages open conversations about all death-related topics, from your own demise to the afterlife and everything in between. Founded by Caitlin Doughty, the movement advocates for more choices for end-of-life care and is committed to ending the silence around death and dying.
Interest in preparing for a good death is growing. More people are seeking ways to put their affairs in order. There is a growing demand for more choices in end-of-life care. There are increased calls for personal services such as Death Doulas to assist with the mechanics of dying. Death doulas help families through the process of a loved one at their end-stage of life. They are not medical professionals. Their purpose is to comfort the dying and provide support to the family.
I came across this beautiful article, Sitting Vigil at a Death Bed: A Checklist by Paula McCann. Posted on her blog, On the Way to Dying, she narrates, in gentle tones, what it is like to sit for a deathbed vigil. She imparts details about the process that you may not realize. She talks about what you can do to bring comfort to the person in their final hours. She explains some of the things that may occur as a person is dying that can be unexpected. I encourage you to read it.
The volatile world political scene, the advent of the global pandemic, and the undeniable climate crisis have dramatically increased death anxiety. As people face their mortality, they want to find ways to soothe their fears. The UK-based Death Café is a non-profit, volunteer-run organization that facilitates events for people to gather for frank talks about death. According to their website, they have organized over 12,000 Death Cafés in countries across Europe, North America and Australasia since 2011. Anyone can organize and sign up to attend one of these events to discuss death-related subjects — find out more at Death Café.
Other changes to customs and practices around dying include a heightened interest in alternative funerals and eco-friendly burials. The Green Burial Society of Canada has an informative guide to green burials. Read it here.
My fears and anxieties around dying have diminished since I have been actively facing down those feelings. There are many thoughts, opinions and ideas about this subject — it’s almost overwhelming. A reference I heard that resonated with me is this: “There is no logical reason to believe that it is better to exist than not to exist.” I’m not sure who said this, it could have been my hubby! I have not been able to ferret out the exact quote. But no matter, when I think about this statement, I can’t argue against it. We think we know what existence is — but do we? As for non-existence, we don’t know what that looks like — we never will. Not existing may be a good thing. There is no logical reason to think it won’t be!
What are your thoughts about death? Are you afraid to talk about dying? Would you go to a Death Café or engage a Death Doula? Tell me in the comments.