I grew up among sickness and death. My father was a veterinary surgeon, and I’d accompany him on farm visits and regularly visit his animal hospital.But I noticed that our relationship with death was different when it came to people. The adults didn’t talk much with us children about the passing of a family member. And when my sister was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of six, we were shunned by many former friends in the community.
Death is taboo, an obsessive morbidity that can’t be healthy for us—or so our culture seems to say. It’s OK to bring it up briefly when someone we know has died, and we recognize grieving, but not for too long. For a few weeks after a loved one dies, we’re offered condolences. We respond with a polite “Thanks,” and then the topic of conversation quickly moves on.
Let’s make impermanence our friend
But death is all around us. By denying aging, death, impermanence and sickness, we set ourselves up for a life of fear and reactivity, and a meanness of spirit. When we do break through the death barrier, we find that we relax into our lives and our place in the universe. We pull back from the acquisitive, busy, controlling mentality that formerly held death and our fear of it at bay. We feel a wave of relief wash over us, and we shift into a more honest and real relationship with ourselves and the people around us. We become more present, more aware and more compassionate.
In society, we often measure success by what we own and what we do. So, at a young age, we start to acquire assets: watches, cars, jewellery, property. We also allow our workplace to define us. And we struggle when all this stuff is taken away from us due to happenstance, ill health and ultimately, death. We grieve the loss, and rue how impermanent life is, but these feelings often come too late to give us much comfort.
We’d be far better off making impermanence our friend and death our mentor at a young age, by creating a daily practice of recognizing that nothing is forever. This daily practice could include the following three steps:
- Reflect on your health and remind yourself that it’s in our nature to become sick.
- Reflect on your life and remind yourself that it’s in our nature to die.
- Reflect on what you have and remind yourself that everything will eventually become separated from you.
Instead of being shocked when something departs our world, it’s best that we instead recognize the loss as natural and wish that person, relationship or thing well on its journey.
My father’s gift to me
My father was always strongly independent. And yet, as his cancer spread, he became weaker and more reliant on others. Through his realization that he wasn’t in control—and perhaps never had been, in his life—he was giving me the gift of a stronger perception of impermanence while allowing me to connect with and care for him more intimately.
When my father was in the final few weeks of his battle with cancer, he turned to me one morning and asked, “What do other people do?”
“Do you mean other people in your situation?”
“Does it really matter what they do? You need to dance to your own tune and not worry about what is a socially acceptable way to die. It’s your time. There’s no right or wrong way.”
It was hard hearing myself say that. This was my father. This was the toughest man I’d ever met.
“All I ask is that you keep breathing. Relax into this part of your journey and breathe. Don’t let social pressure or fear control your behaviour.”
Life is a series of unknown moments
While it’s useful to create a practice to help us deal with our own death, this is no guarantee of how we’ll face it when the time comes, nor will being prepared necessarily reduce the anguish for those around us or lead us to dying in a serene state.
Life is a series of unknown moments that are strung together by our minds to create a narrative. What’s important to remember is that each and every moment is not only unknown, but unknowable. Our death is but one such moment. Contemplate that, explore the unknown, become comfortable with infinite unknowables, and your fear of death and dying well will diminish. Replace your anxious mind with a curious mind.
Building a strong practice of meditation is particularly helpful for creating a heightened level of comfort with the unknown. In meditation, we release our biases and preconceptions and let every moment arrive abundantly unknown.
Death can teach us so much about living life to its fullest—without delay, without fear and without masks—so do your best to let yourself embrace it.
This post was first published on The Mindful Word in November 2017.