The Practice of Dying

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (Death: The Final Stage of Growth, 1975) 

Paris, Syria, Seattle, Michigan, San Bernardino,Sacramento, Bowie, Rickman, Frey, a child in the community, a dear friend’s husband, a grandparent, a father.  Death shows it’s face more and more often these days, confronting us with the nature of being and the opening to evaluate living.

Death and Dying has long been a subject that stimulates a great deal of discomfort for people, we tend to look the other way unless something happens in our lives that focuses us to pay attention to our mortality.  It seems that the world is offering us a learning opportunity right now, in it’s wonderful impromptu fashion.  As death is being revealed to us through shootings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, unexpected heart attacks, recreational accidents, mysterious diseases and the inevitable approach of old age; What will we acquire?  

A consciousness of death is calling for relationship.  Are we ready to meet it?  Embrace whatever arises in the conversation? Walk with it hand in hand on the trail?  

I believe that the best way to meet this is in consciously developing a practice of death.  We can do this by marking the small “d” deaths in our lives; cultivating a practice of the letting go and honoring, in preparation for the big “D” Death at the end of our lives.  The ability to do this is largely based on the our willingness to consistently choose to step into the realm of the unknown, forgoing the known and comfortable.  In other words, challenge yourself to do whatever makes you say “I can’t do that,” “That would be terrifying,” or “That is not for me.”  

Let go of your idea of yourself.  Encounter the lesson of how temporary identity can be.  Forgo  familiarity, change careers, end a relationship that’s not feeling right once and for all, step into being an adult, move to a new place,  let go of the role of parenting or finally embrace retirement, take up dance or activism when everyone around you thinks it may be a silly thing to do, go on a wilderness Quest and sit alone for 4 days without creature comforts.  As we move into experiences of little “D” deaths, we move into the spaces of the unknown and the growth is transformative.  (Transformative being defined as perspective changing on 3 levels: the psychological understanding of self, the revision of belief systems, and the behavioral changes of lifestyle).

In the past month, I have bumped into death and dying, perhaps not much more often than before but with more attention.  It hit me particularly when I unexpectedly heard word about my grandfather’s death and then nearly 2 days later found myself in a horrific car accident that rattled my being.

My grandfather was my last living grandparent, all my grandparents survived the holocaust in one way or another.  He was a stoic man from what I could understand.  I didn’t have much of a relationship with any of my grandparents due to either distance or language barriers.  But I have always felt aware of their determination to live as I recall their stories and feel their blood pulse in my veins.  As his death neared, for years now, my mother cared for him, and in her caring, I saw the difficulty for them both to let go. It was the big “D” Death of his passing that triggered the little “D’ death of identity change for my mother. She could no longer be a care-taker and she could move into the role of being orphaned or growing into her parentless adulthood.  His wish was to live to the bitter end regardless of his state of functioning, which was a drawn out  experience of deterioration, as dementia does.  This spoke volumes to me about the difficult of stepping into the unknown especially after so many year of being defined as a surviver at all costs.  And when he clearly could no longer make any decisions, my mother held on for reasons she could not understand. It seemed like a fear of the ambiguity of what is next, a surrender to death would mean a surrendering to something that has long been fought off, with so much strength, resolve, and will.  Big realities needed to be confronted: forgiveness, gratitude, acceptance, a release of shame, humility, an acknowledgement of humanness, an ability to truly let go and step into a different way of being.

Our culture has so much love for what is and can be acquired in life; be it objects, material goods, praise, prestige, accolades, roles and relationships.  In this practice we lose sight of what is the natural cycle of living.  The trees acquire and lose their leaves every year, and best of all those leaves which have fallen feed the soil for the trees growth.  Can we live this truth without fear, anxiety, resistance?  

Two days after hearing of my grandfather’s death, I found myself in a car accident and very shaken by the whole event.  I was clearly 2 seconds away from being pretty severely injured or more.  In addition, my vehicle was taken to the shop for 2 weeks which challenged my independence and mobility in the world.  It forced me to slow down and get curious, and most of all pause to acknowledge and mourn losses. It can be easy to fall into victimhood in these moments, though it is more so an opportunity to step into the archetype of the seeker, to be in the discovery of all that is already living inside of us.

There are great lessons in moving into these realms.  

Death, both big and little “D” death. often provokes loss and loneliness.  In my brushes with various experiences, it is the witnessing and presence of others that taught me with deep understanding that I am not alone, and that what is scary is must more easily faced in this knowing.  In loss, there is also the opportunity to interact with our struggle, which stimulates and activates our ability to connect to our spirituality, our deeper Self (not attached to any one identity) and to trust in something greater than ourselves.  There is much to gain in loss, if we can truly step into it. 

Being confronted by death stimulates reflection. I often think about how death reveals itself to us frequently during this time.  How are we being asked to engage with this element of living differently than we ever have? 

I am currently teaching a Death and Dying class at the local community college, the students and I engage in various meaningful and in-depth discussions on this topic on both personal and academic levels.  The term began with 23 students enrolled in the class, it dropped to 14.  For me this is a statement of how trying this topic is.  The practice of death is one for the brave-hearted, those who are wiling to deeply look into and reflect on how to sit with discomfort, loss, and the unknown.  For those who can withstand the discomfort of it, great compassion, love, sensitivity and appreciation can emerge; and even more, comes the ability to fully live life, beautifully in touch with our human nature.

“Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together” (Monroe).

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