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How We Might Come to Terms with Death

category_bug_journal2.gif I am aware that what I'm about to write is a long-ish, roundabout way of getting to my point today, but I think it is relevant. If it's not, I'm sure you will let me know.

A recent email exchange with Ashleigh Burrows began when she commented on last week's story here about age and the U.S. presidency.

“...there you are, up and down ladders and schlepping boxes,” she wrote, “and I remember your post when you moved in and all that work was overwhelming and exhausting and you were bummed. Seriously bummed. And today you write about it in a matter of fact way.”

That observation got me to sit up and pay attention. Ashleigh is absolutely correct. For years, I have repeatedly bitched on this blog and elsewhere in life that one of the most irritating things for me about getting old is that I tire more easily and can't get as much done as quickly as when I was younger.

But in that post, as Ashleigh pointed out, I wrote about tiredness after more-than-usual physical activity without annoyance and discontent, instead portraying it as a given, as an accepted part of where I am in life right now. Which is what I felt as I wrote it.

So I emailed Ashleigh to thank her for remarking on a change in myself I had not yet consciously noticed:

”How nice of you to point that out,” said I. “It's the best kind of life learning, isn't it - realizing you've come to something new in your own time as the necessity presents itself. Now that you've put it into words, it feels familiar and I have done it in other ways in the past unrelated to aging.”

Once again, in response, Ashleigh mined a thought I'd knocked off without giving it the weight it deserves:

...come to something new in your own time as the necessity presents itself. Three pieces there ring true - something new, in your own time, as necessity presents. Getting my head around it isn't easy, but necessity presents itself and so I go on.

“Because, honestly, what's the alternative? Lying in bed with a blanket pulled over your head? Not for us, we Jewish girls from NY - no f'ing way!”

Ha! For decades in New York City there were big poster ads in the subway and on bus shelters for Levy's bread. They changed every couple of months and each succeeding one showed a person of different ethnicity or nationality with the line, “You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's.”

Ashleigh is right (again) about us Jewish girls from New York but I think it probably applies to old people anywhere, too – eventually acknowledging the changes that come with age as we need to do, to get on with what's next.

Which finally brings me to my point today. Another recent post about making peace with death and a book giveaway on that topic drew a large number of thoughtful comments about facing the inevitability of our own demise. Here is a handful of the wide variety of perspectives:

"Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment." - Dag Hammarskjöld

I hate the topic but I know I have to deal with it.

As I viewed the video I got choked up and tears started. That is my usual approach to this topic. I think I need the book so that I can, at least, be calm as the end approaches.

He who is not ready to die cannot fully live. As a culture we have this taboo - as if we mention death the Grim Reaper will swoop in. I had to face my own mortality at 27, with two small children at home. It gave the rest of my life a different perspective.

Aging has a way of changing the things that are important to you each and every day.

We go through the largest part of our lives mostly ignoring the fact of our future deaths which is as it should be, I think. As the date gets closer, however, it needs to be addressed and, in time, accepted.

But as much as we yearn for acceptance and would like to “be calm as the end approaches,” thinking the thought doesn't make it so. What I believe can happen, however, is a lot like what Ashleigh pointed out to me about acceptance of my waning energy and stamina.

If, as we get on each day living in the present, we spend some time seriously thinking about it; if we talk about it now and then – here, perhaps, and with friends and relatives; if we seek out and read what others have written about it; if we ponder it quietly from time to time -

Then one day we will realize it has come to pass that we understand; that leaving this world is the completion of the circle of life and that we will welcome it, in its time, as the next great adventure.

And we will realize then, too, that we will have arrived at our equanimity each in our own time as necessity presents itself.

At least, that's how I hope it happens.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, from William Weatherstone: What Do You Do When You Find You're Losing It

Comments

Disagree that it's "as it should be" to ignore the fact that we will die until late in life. Coming up to 40 years of being a Buddhist soon, so I've been contemplating old age, sickness and death for a few decades now. Have had some profound teachings on dying from Tibetan lamas over the years. The latest book in my small collection of books on death and dying is Being with Dying by Joan Halifax, who started her career as a medical anthropologist and now is a Zen roshi. She has worked with dying people for decades and started a training program called The Dying Project.

Years ago, I was fortunate to engage in 9 days of Phowa (transference of consciousness) practice with the Tibetan master Chagdud Rinpoche. That remains an important element of my spiritual practice.

In this very secular society, many people don't prepare for death but ignore or deny it as long as possible. To me, that's sad.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche is another wonderful book--Tibetan Buddhism includes death as an important part of spiritual practice.

Seems to me that ageism has its roots in fear and denial of death. We treat death the way we used to relate to cancer. Don't talk about it and maybe it will go away.

What a mystery, to be here one minute and gone the next. It bears exploration.

Not everyone dies from a wasting disease. But if you have been around a lot of, say, cancer patients, you do see a progression of acceptance. As the disease saps more of their energy, they eventually come to terms with their death. Cancer doctors know this and they roll with it.

I hope I die peacefully in my sleep. 2nd choice would be to drop dead in mid-sentence from a heart attack. Advantages to both would be I didn't see it coming, no extended pain, and no protracted incapacity.

Wish me luck!

I came to terms with death a long time ago. I've had Last Rites three times.

Hopefully, the next time will be the last. I'm tired.


I'm curious about what happens next. My only wish is to come back for about five minutes to write a blog post about the experience.

Enjoyed your description of your trip to "acceptance of old age." I feel that for the circle to be unbroken, slowing down, more time to reflect and acceptance is an important stage of our life. Not only acceptance of our own changes but the changes in others.
If we are keen observers of those who age and die ahead of us, we can learn from their actions or lack thereof. I have several roll models who never told me how to age or die gracefully but set examples that I hope can emulate while I travel to the end of my circle.
Thanks so much for your sharing your trip.
Barbara

To me, the hardest thing is realizing what a small ripple we leave behind in the water.

For me the idea of death coming suddenly or in other ways unwelcomed has been a factor of my life for as long as I can remember. I don't feel particularly fatalistic but it's how it is. Maybe this is a personality thing to find it more easy to accept it. What I'd find harder to accept would be suffering or handicaps; but they too can come uninvited. I also would have a tough time if my children or grandchildren were suddenly taken but that too can happen. It's part of life that we don't get guarantees. It's the scary part but also what makes each day so precious.

"You are not alone in leaving this world.
Everyone who has come before you has died."
The Bhagavad Gita - Tibetan Book of the Dead

"ponder it quietly from time to time" ? We're all different, of course. But it feels like you're being so very gentle about the whole thing. Personally, I don't think that's necessary.

You're going to die! I'm going to die! We're ALL going to die! It's nothing new. How can we possibly not see it for what it is?!? I don't get it.

There are different things to think about, of course, when thinking about death. I tend to think about it in terms of... if I die before my husband, what will be left behind that he will have to work his way through? I guess I think of it in practical terms.

A friend of our died a while back. He had a construction company. He had NO PLANS WHATSOEVER put in place and his wife went through hell dealing with his surprising death AND closing down his company which they had never discussed. She knew nothing about his business. I'm sorry, but that's just stupid! Not to mention selfish!

I say - get your affairs in order now. I think about that at least once/week, I'd say. If I die tomorrow, will Hasse know where my important papers are? What passwords will be needed to get into my accounts? Etc., etc. I don't think it's morose at all. I love my husband. If I die before him, I do NOT want him to have to struggle with getting my affairs in order in the middle of his grieving.

Well, ok, enough of that. It just struck me that you're talking about something in such a gentle way and I guess I'm wondering WHY? It's a fact of life!

I love my family enough that I have all my papers in order and they know where everything is. Its called acceptance I suspect.

I faced death at age 35 while looking down the barrel of a loaded gun held two feet in front of my face by a crazed, screaming husband shouting, "If I can't have you, no one can!" And he meant it.

I looked him square in the eye and told him, "Go ahead. I am not afraid to die." And I meant it.

He finally gave up on murdering me when I calmly reminded him that he would have to be the person to face the kids in the morning and explain to them why he had murdered their mother.

Knowing in your soul that you're not afraid to die seems to give you a whole new attitude about death for the rest of your life. Facing my own death after that held few problems for me after that.

The poem "Thanotopsis" ("Meditation upon Death") that I had to memorize in the 9th grade started me on this course, and the gun added the final emphasis to my insight in to my feelings about death.

I worked in hospitals for 30 years and in SF at the height of the AIDS epidemic. I've seen a lot of death and while I don't dwell on it, try to face our ultimate fate with acceptance. I have little money but have given my sister a will so that she can do what she wants with my books and art. Otherwise, I try to live each day according to what the day brings - whether high or low. I'm certainly not the most exemplary example of acceptance but I'm 100% better than those who refuse to accept aging, spending millions on surgery, cosmetics and living in denial of our final end.

When I was getting ready to graduate from college I remember panicking and thinking, "No, no. I'm just getting the hang of this."
Then I realized that I had learned all I could and it was time to move on to the next stage of my life.

I'll probably react the same way when I'm dying. I'll figure out there is nothing to be afraid of and just move on.

As my mother, age 95, says, "We want to hang onto life." However, she seems calm about the inevitability of death.

If dying is sort of like going under from anesthesia before surgery, maybe it won't be so bad.

My sister says she just hopes it'll be quick. I guess that's the best we can hope for (and that it won't hurt).

Oh, heck, I'm just plain scared to death of dying, and I'm not afraid to say it.

Maybe in the saying of it, some of the fear will disappear. Hope so!

I have prepared all the necessary paper work to avoid being hooked up on tubes and ventilators, have talked to my children and my doctor, and I belong to a Memorial Society that will handle my cremation. I have made a list of my stuff and designated the next owner and taken care of the legal work. I want to make it as painless as possible for my children when the grim reaper calls for me.

In other words, I have prepared for my death as best I can. I know death can come in a twinkling of an eye and am prepared materially and mentally. Having prepared for my demise I refuse to dwell on it and rarely give it any thought.

After his heart stopped for a few seconds in the ER my husband always referred to death as the great adventure.

I have been lucky enough to be given more years than I ever dreamed of, so I have no right to fight death. I would lose anyhow. I do not fear death and hope that I don't have a sudden unexpected reversal when the bell tolls for me.

I have a fear greater than death and that is to become incapacitated and no longer able to care for myself. Now that's something to fear.

Was it Casey Stengel who said, "Nobody gets out of this world alive."? Death is the great equalizer and we may as well accept the fact that we will die and then move on.

If I could choose how to spend my last minutes on earth, it would happen like in the movie "The Godfather," where Marlon Brando as the GF is poking around in his garden, and then... he's gone.

Whatever the topic, I just break into smile when I read some of your sassy stuff, Ronni. You have made my day....again.

Read (do not watch the movie) the children's book Tuck Everlasting. A great perspective on how exhausting it would be to live forever.

My mother dreamed she died and (still dreaming) woke up in her bed with all the animals she had ever loved coming to greet her.
That's where I'm going.

So pleased to see this topic discussed...and with an acknowledgement of Ashleigh's contribution, for there's real wisdom gained the hard way.

I struggle with an immune disorder and concomitant chronic pain which have clarified for me just what it is I fear most between now and the end: pain with helplessness. There are times when I can trigger a panic attack by imagining that pain growing as the condition continues to take its toll. Then the thought of death comes with as a relief.

It's very hard to know how to talk about that fear without being a total drag or a whiny complainer. As with this discussion of death, it's a subject that typically only interests the medical community and others who deal with it.

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