We don’t do death well in this country, which results in a lot of unnecessary suffering. Most of us do not talk about death and are terribly uncomfortable being in death’s presence.
Yet, death is normal. By treating death like an invisible elephant sitting in the room, we deprive ourselves of making peace with our mortality, of deeply communicating with and comforting each other in the face of death and of taking the opportunity to make meaningful plans for the end of our life’s journey.
Talking about and dealing with death is our last great social taboo. We all know that we will die someday, as will our beloved ones and cherished pets and everybody else. Yet, most of us relate to death as wrong — as something that shouldn’t happen.
The taboo against talking about or dealing with death runs deep in our culture. As a result, most of us relate to death much like children squeezing our eyes shut behind our covering hands, as though what we were looking at has disappeared because we aren’t seeing it. According to a 2011 Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong poll, Americans are typically unwilling to face their own mortality and many fear that the mere act of planning for the end of life will somehow hasten their demise.
Despite our difficulty in dealing with death, its presence as our one certainty begs the question of our relationship to death and how that informs the quality of our lives. Treating death as bad and life as good puts us in the position of resisting and avoiding death as though we could somehow beat the odds. This polarized view of life and death deprives us of developing a better understanding of the meaning, wisdom and blessings that the full cycle of life and death bring to our lives. Those who have the courage to accept the reality of death and to observe and experience it with their eyes wide open have access to this deeper understanding.
Social taboos take time to lose their grip on us. Typically, a few brave souls recognize a need to swim against the current, and little by little a momentum builds until an alternative way of being becomes an option.
Breaking through a taboo happens one person at a time, one situation at a time as a result of conscious and determined effort. The really good news is that we are living in very exciting times in terms of the prospects for disempowering the taboo against death in America. We are seeing more and more hospice and other palliative care programs that are teaching us a kinder and gentler approach to the end of life. Doctors and other health care workers are being challenged to reframe how they view death from seeing it as a professional failure to accepting the limitations of medicine and technology and the wisdom of passing the baton to a palliative care program as a way to comfort patients who are dying.
The baby boomers, now ages 47-65, are becoming elder boomers. Beginning Jan. 1, 2011, an average of 10,000 boomers will turn 65 each day. Thus, death is becoming a much more familiar part of the landscape of our lives.
Buddhist teachings advise us to avoid attachments and aversions as they block our ability to be present in the true reality of our lives. With both attachments and aversions we attempt to play God, saying “I must have this” or “I must never have that.” When we resist death, not only are we engaging in a statistically losing battle, but we exhaust our precious energy trying to avoid the inevitable rather than accepting and working with what is truly present.
By resisting and avoiding death, while holding on for dear life to life, we end up with a life filled with always trying to second guess what is coming and grabbing hold of whatever we like that comes our way while pushing away that which we do not want.
The result of avoiding talking about or dealing with death is that when we are forced to experience death either as a spectator or as the one who is dying, most of us are woefully ill-prepared mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Death shocks and disturbs us not because it is some awful occurrence but because we have made it so. In reality, death is quite normal.
Each of us is born, has a life and then dies. Life and death are inexorably paired — we don’t get to have one without the other. That is not negotiable. However, our attitude and beliefs about death and how we relate to life and death are both socially and individually negotiable.
As a life coach, minister and grief counselor I have encountered an enormous range of beliefs and behaviors regarding death and have seen how profoundly these points of view inform the lives of my clients.
At one extreme, I have worked with people who are so terrified by the fact that they will someday die that they are unable to function in their daily lives. At the other extreme are those who have either intentionally explored their fear of death or those who have had a life experience that brought them to a place of peace and acceptance of their mortality. Some among this later group have shared that by changing their perspective on death, they have also changed how they view humanity and they find themselves more deeply compassionate and understanding of themselves and others.
Here are some questions to think about:
•How do you relate to death?
•Does it scare you or are you at peace with your mortality?
•Have you had any life experiences that have profoundly changed your view of death?
•How does the reality of death affect how you live your life?
•What are your thoughts and concerns about death?
•What would you like to see our society do differently about how we deal with dying and death?