Facing Our Deaths
As a chaplain, I spend a lot of time around death. I talk about death with patients and colleagues. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that dying isn’t a normal topic of discussion for most people. At least people in this country. In many cultures, death is still a common part of life.
You see that in the Buddhist story of the mustard seed medicine. In the Buddha’s town lived a young mother named Kisa whose only child died from a fever. No one could comfort her. She carried her son’s dead body around with her as if by doing so she could make him live again. She even went to the Buddha to ask for a magic potion that would restore her son to life.
The Buddha said he could indeed make her a potion, but it would need a special ingredient. “You must bring me a teaspoon of mustard seed,” he told her.
The Seed that Wasn’t
“But that’s not special. I have mustard seed in my own home.” And she jumped up to go collect it.
“Wait,” said the Buddha. “This mustard seed must come from a household in which no one has ever died.”
Kisa hesitated. That would be harder. Surely it wouldn’t be impossible, though. With hope and determination, she set off to gather a teaspoon of this special seed so the Buddha could bring her son back to life.
Of course, Kisa could not find such seed. All her neighbors had lost loved ones, so she wandered farther, seeking a home in which no one had ever died. Her task turned out to be impossible, after all, and Kisa at last gave up.
Sadly, she went back to the Buddha and told him she now understood. All things die. Some die sooner; some later. Nonetheless, anything that lives must one day not live. It is the way, for without death there can be no new life. Also, because we will one day lose everything we have ever loved, that love is made sweeter.
Coping with Death
My work as a chaplain, however, is not to convince people that dying is a good thing. I am something of a midwife. Rather than guiding souls onto Earth, I guide them to the realm beyond, a place we cannot see. My task is to nurture, hold sacred space, honor the passing, witness the grieving, sit with the frightened, and know that I am as helpless against the face of eternity as anyone.
How in heaven’s name do we cope?
Some of us cope by telling stories of a world beyond. Many of my patients are convinced they are going to a land where sorrow and pain are forever vanquished. Others talk about reincarnation or realms of the spirit. How can I prove them wrong? Why would I want to? Grieving families often find comfort from thoughts of seeing loved ones again once they, too, die.
Different Responses to Death
The dying process can sometimes bring gifts, as well. Some terminally ill patients describe a way of seeing they didn’t have before. Each moment seems larger, richer when their lives were filled with work and plans and activities. As the body weakens, the spirit can strengthen. Other people, exhausted by years of poverty or pain or illness, feel ready to die. They are tired of fighting to survive. On the other hand, some people fight death itself, certain a miracle cure from science or a miracle healing from God will pull them back from the brink, as if our bodies were meant to go on and on walking this planet until the end of days.
I don’t understand. Being healthy and vital, how can I? All I can know is what I see and feel in others: the pain, the fear, the loneliness, and the peace, the spiritual wholeness, and the awe that accompany death.
Dying is not easy. I can’t imagine letting go of everything in this world, everything I care about, everything I am. I can barely let go of worn-out clothes or books I no longer read, yet to be fully alive, we need to face our deaths. I’m convinced of that.
That’s why I sometimes try a Buddhist meditation on death. Imagine your sick body taking its last breath, the skin cooling, the muscles stiffening. Imagine the decay and eventual disintegration, even the bones turning into dust. I find it helps to sit with the terror of emptiness that arises, though I have yet to sustain the meditation long enough for it to work its magic and dissolve my fear of slipping into that world of who-knows-what?
Because facing death head on can make us squirm, we also cope by making fun of death. We personify it as a skeleton in a black robe. We tell stories in which it is fooled. In most of them, the fooler is ultimately fooled herself, as in the story of “Death and the Old Woman,” based on a tale by Harold Courlander.
In this story, Death comes to take an old woman. She convinces him she isn’t ready, she has the corn crop to bring in, and then she’ll go. So Death gives her a few more days, but she’s still not finished and tells him to come back.
“I’m a busy man,” says Death. “I can’t keep coming back for you.”
“Oh, don’t make a special trip on my account,” the woman says.
So Death goes away for a few years, and the woman starts to get blind and deaf. She still works in her corn field, though she trips over the stalks now and then. Eventually Death returns, and again the woman tells him she can’t go with him at the moment, and he shouldn’t bother about coming to get her, he should just send a sign. Like a sign to see, or a sign to hear.
Death Goes Away
So Death leaves her to her corn field, and by the time he sends the sign to see – a letter – she’s completely blind and can’t see it. By the time he sends the sign to hear – a messenger – she’s completely deaf and can’t hear it. So she doesn’t go.
Irritated, Death goes himself to fetch her. Seeing that she is blind and deaf, he’s furious and tells her he’ll never go back for her again.
And he doesn’t. The woman lives on and on, getting older and more wrinkled, and thinner and thinner, until one day she just disappears, except for some strands of hair she leaves in the corn as silk.
We enjoy hearing stories about people who cheat death, who live longer than they’re supposed to. After all, most of us try to cheat death ourselves by eating well, exercising, taking the right medicine, saying the right prayers. We can relate to this blind, deaf woman who stumbles on in spite of her age, determined to continue doing the work she loves. I like to imagine her enjoying the roughness of the stalks in her hands, relishing the warmth of the sun, appreciating the scent of the dirt, and welcoming the touch of a breeze on her face.
Fear of Death
Nonetheless, there are consequences to living on and on and on. I’ve talked to more than one 90-something-year-old whose legs ached so they could barely walk or whose eyes were blurred could they barely see. Some of their mothers had lived into their hundreds, and they said to me, “I don’t want to live another ten years.” When our bodies ache and the loneliness becomes heavy on our hearts, death can be a friend.
Yet even when we are bone weary, if death does come near we may have second thoughts. Such is the case for the wood cutter of Aesop’s Fables. One day, while carrying faggots to market, he became so exhausted by the long journey that he sat on a log, threw his load to the ground, and called for Death to come.
To the man’s surprise, Death showed up immediately. “Why have you called me?” he asked.
Scrambling to his feet, the man answered, “Oh, just to have you gather up my sticks and place them back on my shoulders.”
Sometimes, we’re not as ready to die as we think we are, and the moment of passing is not always peaceful. I’ve been with those who fought or railed or clung to life from fear of nothingness or fear of hell. After all, death is an unknown, and the unknown scares us. Mostly, though, it seems the final days of death are peaceful. How much of that is because of the pain killers and benzodiazepines we give patients to ease their breathing and calm their nerves, I don’t know. Yet years before we had such a thing as “comfort care,” the writer André Gide wrote, “Death puts on velvet gloves to take us.”
Because of Death, Life Is Sweeter
I don’t pretend to know what death is, nor what it means. I have no words to explain or soften what is difficult for the ones leaving or for the ones who stay behind. Mutely, I stand by, hold hands, offer hugs, witness the confusion and agony. Often, family members and friends do this for one another, as well.
Perhaps this comfort we offer is, ultimately, how we “cheat” death, for when we love and hold, death loses its sting. When we honor the reality of death, we honor life. When we mourn our loved ones, give our grieving full room, we create space in our hearts for joy and become alive again.
In cities around the United States, where we’ve protected ourselves by secluding death from our homes, Death Cafes and natural burials are becoming more mainstream, and for good reason. When we refuse to accept death, we miss much of life.
In the fall, leaves turn brown and drop from the branches. Rain make everything sodden and grey; snow covers the greenery. At this time, it is natural to think of coming death. I encourage you to meditate on your dying, to talk about death to friends and loved ones, to consider what it means to be born and thus to die. Then thank the universe or your god for making, not only life, but the death that makes our life that much sweeter.
In Faith and Fondness,
Photo credit: by Splintah from Unsplash
Copyright © 2016 Barbara E. Stevens