May 27, 2010
What Do We Do About Death?
I am interested in how we can approach the subject of death with more reverence and respect. How can we treat it with the sacredness it deserves, rather than something terrible to quickly move beyond?
I’ll not forget the time I spent in the hospital with my dying friend whose body was being ravaged by a rare blood cancer. I sat on her bed, listened to her concerns and life stories, and did myriad tasks at her request. Just before she passed her cousin came to say hello. The cousin stood about 6’ away, purse over shoulder, arms crossed in front of her chest. She had brought her husband and they both had the same look on their faces – a look that said, “Good God, get me outta here.” They scrammed after about seven minutes. This as well as other encounters I witnessed during that time revealed much about how uncomfortable we are with death and dying.
Twice in my life I faced my own mortality - experiences that forever changed the way I look at both life and death. I’ve felt the cutting harshness when friends’ lives ended abruptly, and have helped people heal from painful losses they weren’t ready to accept. Perhaps it is because of these experiences I delve further into this subject, to explore it more deeply, to step into a much-needed role: that of being fully present in the face of dying.
Yesterday, I learned of the death of a sweet friend. He was 80, had lived a long, colorful life, and was fortunate to be at home among the people who love him most as he passed. My heart feels the pang of this loss. In the last several weeks, three people came to me after losing their beloved dogs. One of these touched me so deeply, my tears flowed out mid-session. When we are in relationship with others or when we are serving them, our human side must lead. How can we be fully engaged otherwise?
Two weeks ago I went to a daylong retreat led by Joan Halifax Roshi, a woman who has devoted much of her life to the importance of conscious awareness around dying. She teaches how we can evolve ourselves beyond the current reflex of avoidance to a place of having what she calls a “Strong back, Soft front.” Most of us have this reversed. Our hearts are quite armored and guarded, our backs are slumped and weak.
We can practice being present with a soft front to benefit those passing, those who have just lost someone close to them, and to deepen our wisdom around our own passing. The question is how? How can we put into practice something we know very little about? We begin by being aware of the desire to escape or avoid the inevitable. We can be more aware of our discomfort around this very normal human condition. We can recognize the inclination to say rote things such as, “I’m so sorry,” instead allowing our human side to lead.
When we allow our human side to lead, we have no choice but to have a soft front. We must give the dying or their loved ones the gift of having our full presence with them, not in fear and anguish, but with compassion. This is no easy task, but if you can enter a room with no expectations, setting your own fears aside for a time, with no attachment to the outcome, then you’ve got it. If your arms are crossed over your chest and your purse is hanging on your shoulder, keep practicing.
We are not taught to honor the aging, to bear witness to the suffering of those we love, or to be with death with a strong back. We must learn to do this on our own. So the next time you have the opportunity, go in with a strong back and a soft front. Be fully present in that atmosphere of death, whether it be your own loved one or the loved one of someone you know. When you say something, speak from your heart, leaving behind the canned clichés we know so well. Stop thinking you don’t know what to do or what to say. You aren’t being asked to walk barefoot across hot coals. You are being asked to listen to your soft front and go with that.