With a couple friends looking at their last moments of time in this plane, I feel compelled to write again about Death… really about both Life Transitions of Birth and Death and why it seems we have an easier time with one than the other. And really, aren’t we all looking at our last moments of time? Who among us is assured long life, many years, freedom from disease? None of us. And I believe if we all look at only having the present, only being guaranteed the current moment, we’d all live life a bit differently.
From Helen Nearing’s Loving and Leaving the Good Life (p.167)
As some of you know, I’ve had a bit of a love affair with Death. I’ve been studying it for some years now, have taught two 4-session workshops that I designed on Death, and have had many conversations with people in the past decade as I explore the whole concept. I often wonder why we don’t talk more about this transition and I believe, if we did, we’d all be much healthier in our attitudes about it and we’d have much less fear around our own mortality.
I mean, why is it we can ask a pregnant woman multiple times, “When are you due?” or “Are you ready?” but we often struggle to ask a loved one who has a terminal illness, “Are you ready for your transition from this life?”, “What are the things you hope most to accomplish before you die?” or “Is there anything you want to tell me before you’re no longer able?” See!?! Even in asking for consideration of these questions I make the questions themselves a bit more sugar-coated. Why not, “Are you ready for death?” or “What do you fear not getting done before you go?” or, well, OK, I like the wording on that last one.
Why do we celebrate Birth and mourn Death? I wonder sometimes if we should mourn Birth and celebrate Death. Maybe we have it all backwards! At Birth, there’s no manual, no instructions, and you’re helpless to your circumstances of birth. And then you start maturing (or at least aging) and it gets harder and harder. At the end, if you live a long life, you’re likely shitting down your leg and can’t do anything to control it! You keep getting your butt kicked more and more until you die. In the end, we should be celebrating that you’ve finally made it out! Because for most of us, it can get pretty ugly at the end. We may still retain a twinkle in our eye, a smile that brightens the room, but often we’ve lost mobility, physical ability, and clarity of mind.
I recently finished Helen Nearing’s Loving and Leaving the Good Life. Thanks to Mary Pohl for hooking me up with a copy after she discovered it. I had started it way back when I received it but then put it down for a long while. [Homesteading is busy work and I always have other books surrounding me so…] Finishing it now was a good timing. As the year ends, the warm time leaves, and the days shorten, we often think of passing from this life to whatever comes next. With some good friends facing terminal illness and Death looming close by, it is even more prevalent in my thoughts of late.
In her final chapter, Helen contemplates much about death and shares her and Scott’s writings on the subject along with some others. And it has brought much to contemplate for me over the last few weeks. What if, as Scott Nearing writes, death is not an end but a change, like the change from day to night? What if death is merely another passage to a new expression of the self? If we look at nature, there is a continuum. When an animal or plant dies, it changes form and becomes fodder for the next plant or animal or bug or bacteria. As C.H. Bjerrregaard wrote in The Great Mother (1913), “Death and life are but the struggle of life itself to attain a higher form.”
Helen shares a favorite fable of Scott’s:
And I particularly loved this from Gustave Fechner:
I was quite impressed with how Scott Nearing took charge of his own death and how Helen helped him in the process. I have read from multiple sources that, if we stop nutrition, and eventually water, death can be a shutting down process which is pain free and allows for lucidity into the final moments. Helen describes this beautifully in her final chapter giving quite a bit of detail on how Scott stopped eating about 6 weeks prior to his death and took only juices from that point. About a week before death, he asked for only water. This way of approaching death left him not only pain free but ludic until the very end. Her story of their final moments is truly one of the most beautiful I have ever heard.
I don’t know what happens after we die our physical death here on Earth, but was fascinated by a recent story on NPR about The Shape of Water, which included this quote by Guillermo Del Toro.
“I don’t think there is life beyond death, I don’t. But I do believe that we get this clarity in the last minute of our life. The titles we achieved, the honors we managed, they all vanish. You are left alone with you and your deeds and the things you didn’t do. And that moment of clarity gives you either peace or the most tremendous fear, because you finally have no cover, and you finally realize exactly who you are.” ~ on his film, The Shape of Water
Maybe it is just darkness. Maybe there are only mud and worms and no kind of next place. But I find it hard to believe with the testimonies from many. And it is common knowledge that, the closer we get to death, the more exchanges some of us have with the other side; often it starts in dreams. In fact, many people in the last weeks of life will have confusion regarding which world they are currently inhabiting and will speak to those who’ve passed on before them as if they are present. I believe in their minds, they are; that the veil between this world and the next becomes thin and they can experience both at the same time.
My own Grandmother saw her brothers and sisters in the days before her death and I was told that she was talking with them as she passed from this life. I like to imagine they welcomed her into the next phase. My husband tells a beautiful story of watching his father transition as we sat at his deathbed. And he has shared with me his brother’s Near Death Experience (NDE) during a surgery when he was quite young. Jeff came out of surgery telling of having seen his grandfather (who’d already passed on) and how “he had legs!” (since Jeff had last seen him in a coffin and wondered where his legs had gone), but that he’d been told he would need to return to his life as it was not yet his time.
I am hoping for something after this life where we again experience time with loved ones. Perhaps we have a deeper understanding of all we experienced in this lifetime. I believe that, in the end, we do have a chance to see our life play before us. However, we see it from the perspective of the other. We see all those times when our words or actions caused pain. Those times we thoughtlessly dismissed others or purposefully hurt them. But we also see all those times, many of which we may not have been aware, where we made a difference in someone else’s life. Those smiles we gave a stranger that helped her through the day. The kind word that kept a co-worker from giving up. The forgiveness that resulted in reconciliation. Perhaps heaven is when we relive all the beautiful times when we lived well and hell is merely a re-living of all those times we fell short in being kind and considerate, or simply doing what we knew was not our best.
This belief leads me to try to be more kind and compassionate. And there are gentle reminders everywhere. On the negative, seeing someone lash out reminds me that I do not want to be known or remembered as that sort of person. And on the positive I am reminded by Jewel playing Hands at the concert last week, a wonderful song which includes the lyric: “In the end only kindness matters.”
And to end with some levity, Dan and I watched Captain Fantastic recently.
Spoiler Alert – if you don’t want too much insight to the movie, stop reading now…
The story is about a bunch of children who’ve been raised in the woods by their parents, pretty much living on meat they kill themselves, plants they grow or forage, and books – these kids read amazing books! The premise is that the mother, having recently returned to the civilization of her younger days, had committed suicide and the family must now rescue her from a traditional death ceremony and instead fulfill the wishes she expressed to them on how she wanted her end in this physical plane. They eventually obtain her body and take it through the process of celebration she desired. And they honor her final wish, which Dan now says is his… to be flushed down the toilet in a public place.
Flush me in the Winnipeg Airport in the Women’s restroom toilet! ~ Dan, after seeing Captain Fantastic
He actually says I can probably just send him away at Alida Country Store since its watershed goes to the Hudson. He wants to end up in Canada. And who can blame him?
So what do we say to our friends Rick and Kathy? We say, “We Love You! We are happy you’ve been a part of our journey!”, and we open our hearts to hear whatever they need to share. We take food so the family can focus on being together and sharing stories and memories. We ask what we can do – often it’s little things like washing dishes or vacuuming, again, to give the family time for just being together as they don’t have to worry about the more mundane aspects of life. And we pray and send good energy for peace. It’s not easy knowing your time is short in this life. But knowing also gives time to wrap up loose ends as best you can.
We also can think about how to wrap up loose ends long before we know our time is drawing to a close. Because often, we are taken by surprise by Death. What can we do?
- Write a will. Whether it’s assuring your assets go where you’d like or making clear who will raise your young children, a will lets loved ones know your wishes. It helps them process through your belongings feeling confident they are doing what you would want. And it can help prevent arguments between those left behind in grief.
- Make arrangements for whatever rituals you want practiced to celebrate your passing. Yes, celebrate, because, as I learned from my African American friends in East Chicago, the best funerals are Celebrations of Life. You can select music, readings, whether you want a formal funeral or just a gathering. Maybe a you want everyone to have a big hog roast and share all kinds of stories about you. You can even specify an event to happen at some future date after you pass which can give people time to work through some of the more intense grief at your passing and better make it a celebration. Trying to arrange a funeral when you’re in the midst of grief is difficult for families. Making these arrangements ahead of time leaves more time for loved ones to feel and talk instead of working so hard to make arrangements. And it also leaves them with no guilt over wondering if they made the right decisions in what they have chosen.
- Write legacy letters. These letters can be written to individuals or groups and include stories and ideas you want to pass on as you leave this life. You can write to your church, your children, your company, your community – arrange to have it published in the paper if you’d like. Many people write to individuals to more personally let them know why they are special or what your hopes are for them. However you choose to write your legacy, it gives a way to leave your words with those who’ve made this journey with you.
And what if you do know your time is coming? Have a Funeral before you go. Why save all the good things to say for after you’re gone? Bring everyone together and let them share all they would share when you’re gone while you can still tell them how meaningful it is to hear. I have written my plan for what I’d like to have happen and my hope is that it’s a while before I have to implement it. But it does give me comfort to know I’ve planned this while I am in a good space.
Here’s hoping you and yours have a very Merry Christmas, no matter what. All we have is now.