Death is thought of in many ways. As an (or the) enemy or as a sad and tragic reality. Sometimes as an essential part of the natural cycle of life—“a time to be born and a time to die”—and sometimes as a thief. Grim Reaper, mystery, transition or rebirth. In the Harry Potter books, death is described as the next great adventure and as an old friend. In some situations, death is also thought of like an escape, a relief, or a rest.
What about death as a teacher? “If death is the teacher, then it’s not a class I’d choose to take,” we may be tempted to respond. Who wants death as a teacher? And yet, might the lessons that death teaches be on life’s required course list? For the grief and loss class that I teach in the local social work graduate school, the quip is that the class is elective but grief and loss (and death) are not.
Whether or not we choose death as our teacher, when confronted by death, almost all of us learn. Many of the lessons learned are not new, but even when this is so, the depth of our understanding is often new. We know life doesn’t last forever, yet sometimes this knowledge can be mostly a “head thing.” When confronted by the presence of death, however, we know that life is limited in a more profound way—not just in our heads but also in our hearts and in our guts.
I had this experience as a young oncology social worker. Although I was to work in pediatric oncology, I went along on a retreat for adult oncology patients and their spouses to help get myself oriented more generally to the world of oncology. I remember hearing a husband talk about his wife’s cancer and how he and his wife had plans for many things they wanted to do when they retired. Now the most they could get from the treatment team was five-year survival statistics. Their future was now a question mark in a way that it had not been before. Coming home to my wife after this retreat, I shared with a new intensity of awareness that anything that was really important for us to do, we shouldn’t delay if we could help it.
Life is precious. Value each day and moment. Prioritize what’s most important. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t delay what really matters, if at all possible. Tell others how much they mean to you. Forgive and reconcile whenever you can. These lessons can sound like greeting-card clichés, but in the real presence or threat of death, these lessons do not feel superficial.
This higher degree of awareness and sense of urgency with our limited time makes sense when we think about how we respond to a scarcity of resources. On a summer hike, we carefully make use of our water supply to last us until we’re home again. When money is tight, every dollar counts. When our schedule is full and overflowing with demands, we know we have no time to waste. Imagine, on the other hand, that we win the lottery and we retire with millions of dollars at our disposal. Suddenly, we can spend and/or squander amounts of money that would have been inconceivable before. Leaving our got-to-work-if-we-want-to-eat jobs behind, we are on indefinite vacation with time to spare. What a difference it makes when supplies have few limits. How different it is when death reminds us that however long life lasts, it is a finite number of days.
While much is made of our avoidance of death and the awareness it brings, there are times when we appear to seek out death’s lessons. We sometimes push ourselves to physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual limits to help ourselves feel more alive. The closer we come our mortal limits, the more energy and inspiration we can feel. Limits (death) gives the stuff of life more value and meaning. Those who are up close and personal with death—healthcare professionals, hospice volunteers, first-responders, soldiers, law enforcement, firefighters, and others—get regular reminders of the realities of death and the value life has in its shadow. We know that those facing their own deaths or the deaths of their family and friends often have insights and wisdom to share. They perhaps know best of all what is most important about life as they grapple with its limitations. And we do well to learn from them.
Years ago, again as a young social worker in oncology, I watched a video of adults talking about their experiences with cancer. One man especially stood out. He said that no matter what happened with his cancer, whether he lived long or died soon, he was grateful for his cancer diagnosis. His experience with cancer had burned away those things which didn’t deserve his worries and obsessions. He now felt more alive and was rightly spending time on the things of utmost importance.
In my experience, there are few who will go as far as this man with his appreciation for his brush with death (and he did die with his cancer). Nevertheless, there was wisdom there. Death can be hard and cold and cruel and capricious. It can hurt so deeply and break our hearts. In our brokenness, however, there is an opportunity to learn—not just about death but also about life.
When I worked in the world of pediatric oncology, I would often witness this learning taking place in both children and families. They could have deep wisdom about what was and is most important in life and how to adjust life accordingly. This learning was humbling and inspiring. Sometimes I would wonder how and if it lasted. In fairness, I could wonder the same thing about me. Death is a teacher, whether or not we signed up for the class. Wouldn’t it be a life-affirming thing to really learn death’s lessons and put them to use way before the final exam?
Center for Good Mourning