How can awareness of death enrich life?

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With Rev. Jean McElhaney

How can awareness of death enrich life?
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Jean McElhaney © 15 September 2019

Therefore, because death stirs people
To seek answers to important spiritual questions,
It becomes the greatest servant of humanity
Rather than its most feared enemy.

Lord Krishna to Arjuna, in Bhagavad Gita

While we all “know” that death is inevitable, it usually a topic that we would prefer not to think about. When I posted on Neighbourly that I was seeking a co-facilitator to host Death Cafes with, people responded that discussing death seemed morbid and somehow sick.

And yet, it also seems to me there is a growing movement to come back into “right relationship” with death. For example, now there are not only Death Cafes, but also Coffin Clubs and “Death Over Dinner” gatherings, Threshold Choirs, as well as of course books, Ted talks, and a growing number of death doula programs. I know that last year there was a study group on death here at the Unitarian Church; maybe some of you took part? Even as we speak, a conference called “Death Matters” is taking place in Christchurch, with many different presenters and over 100 participants.

From the organiser of that conference, Christchurch Death Cafe Founder Melanie Mayell:

“I love talking about death because it reminds me that our time here is limited. Death matters for all of us, because it helps us to pause and prioritise what is truly important.”

Before I say much more, I want to pause and acknowledge that in this room there could all kinds of different things going on. Some of us may have recently been touched by death. Who has had someone close to them die within the last year? Some of us may be dealing with a life-limiting diagnosis. Some may be supporting a friend or family member with such a diagnosis. And some of us have had the experience that the death of someone meant our lives would never be the same again. Acknowledging these things can stir deep feelings. It can be tempting to talk about death in the abstract, from a mental level only, but if we do that we lose some of the gift of letting our whole selves deal with the reality and inevitability of death, the preciousness of life. By acknowledging our feelings, we can tap into the deeper spaces of our heart’s longings – for connection, compassion, meaning, and purpose, and ultimately perhaps — “LOVE BEYOND BELIEF.”

Like perhaps many of us, I was rather late in life before being present as someone I knew passed away. My father died on my 50th birthday. Up until then, I had thought about death and read about the stages of dying. My grandparents had died when I was in high school. But I had never been in the same room as a dying person. I had never witnessed death up close and personal. That birthday/death day definitely increased my awareness of mortality as well as my appreciation of the mystery of being alive at all.

Then almost three years ago, I was wakened in the middle of the night be a call from the University of Wisconsin Hospital. A doctor informed me that she had treated my mother that evening in the emergency room, but that the prognosis did not look good. The Dr. was going to make a referral to hospice, which generally means the person is expected to die within six months. I went back to the US that Thanksgiving. When I entered my mother’s room, it felt like grace had changed everything. Somehow the old familiar anger, expectations, and wounds fell away. I was there in a different way, present to who she was in that moment, free of roles and old stories. We talked about death, and about what she wanted for her funeral and about forgiveness. My sister and I cleared out her apartment. I was told it was unlikely she would make it to New Year’s Day 2017. By the way, she lives on even now. Death follows its own time frame. Acknowledging her mortality somehow enhanced our connection, refined it to some essential qualities, and then has in some ways allowed us to release what was between us into something more universal, less personal.

There are a number of ways it seems to me facing death can enhance life. Or as the motto for the death doula training I attended: “Showing up for death, nourishing life.”

  1. It helps us focus on what matters and what our priorities are. We can let go of the things that actually are not so important and focus on what is: love, beauty, contribution. A conversation with a dear friend is what counts, not what is on sale at Briscoes or what your grades were way back when or how many “likes” your last post received.<br /><br />An example: What if your partner tends to leave socks lying around, or coffee mugs turn up in unlikely spots? This could be annoying, right? But if you imagine either one of you facing death, you can gain perspective. You think about how much you might miss those socks or coffee cups lying around – the signs that you are sharing your life with someone. You may actually end up feeling gratitude! Or you can tune into the kindness and care that you would likely have in those moments and then, if you do talk about it, it may be easier to do it with a sense of humor and a softer tone of voice, maybe even a playful attitude. You can relax and lighten up! You realize your priority is the relationship, and enjoyment of the day, not so much how perfectly clean our house is. You may consciously choose to spend your time differently. If you had only a month to live, how much of that time would you want to spend reading the news? How much of it singing or writing or dancing or gardening? The Unitarian principle of searching for truth and meaning comes into play here – death can give meaning to life by helping us to value our experience of life, knowing our days are numbered.
  2. We can be more motivated to address relationship “stuff” sooner rather than later, because we are aware that “later” may or may not come.
    1. People on their deathbeds often want to express regrets and be forgiven. They want to leave with a sense of peace. What if instead of waiting, you let people know now if you have a sense that there is something unfinished? What if you could find the courage to acknowledge actions that may have stimulated pain for someone you care about, and to ask them if there is anything they want to express about it? You may find that they don’t even remember it! Or you may find that just acknowledging it and letting people know you care about the impact of your actions on them will in itself do wonders for repairing relationships and easing the burden of guilt.
    2. Another side of this is to let people know that you forgive them. Would you really want to stay angry with your friend for forgetting your birthday, if you knew she had only a short time to live? Or would you remember why you became friends in the first place, release that, reach out to her, and let her know you care about her? It can be very powerful to let someone know you are willing to let go of something, in service of care and connection. It can also be powerful to forgive ourselves! To have compassion and acceptance for both ourselves and each other, recognizing that we are learning as we go and that underneath whatever defences and images we create for ourselves, we are all vulnerable, we will all die. Life is too short to beat ourselves up all the time.
    3. Expressing our love while we can. “I love you” is something that some people, some families say often while others show it in actions or touch. In the course of busy lives, it can be easy to take each other for granted and forget to be present for each other. Awareness of the impermanence of life can be a bittersweet reminder to let the people you care about know they matter to you, now.
  3. We discover the relationship between grief and gratitude.
    The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which makes compassion possible.
    — Francis Weller

    Knowing that everything is impermanent can spark profound grief, but also gratitude, even for small things or moment. Knowing we won’t be able to enjoy something forever can enhance our appreciation for them now. The colour of light when rainbows tend to appear. The magnolia blossoms of spring. The sound of the tuis. The feel of the beach under your bare feet. If you thought this was your last spring ever, wouldn’t that beach be even more amazing somehow? Sometimes I spontaneously just say “Thank you” out loud in those moments when my heart is filled with the beauty of life. I mean, isn’t it just such a gift to pick fresh spinach for your salad? Wow.
  4. We can learn surrender into our rightful place, in harmony with the rhythms of nature. We can experience the freedom of letting go of trying to control everything, realizing that such control is illusion. We can listen for the cycles of life. What are we called to attend to now? There can be a real sense of interdependence, a sense of belonging to a bigger picture than what we thought. There may be times in our lives when we give of our strength, and other times when our gift is our vulnerability. Giving and receiving within the interdependent web of life. We can learn to make peace with what this, to learn to relax into the mystery of a bigger picture.
    Nature can teach us so much about this. We can learn to appreciate the loss of the daylight as it yields to the night, and then the loss of the quiet nighttime as it yields to morning again. Loss and gain, grief and gratitude woven together…cycles of life and death.
  5. While in some ways we learn to surrender, in other ways death can spark an inquiry into what we want our legacy to be, what we want to leave behind. If there were no death, we may not feel so acutely the need to make our lives count. There would always be tomorrow. For some, our “legacy” may be physical, like a house. Or we may leave behind a spiritual legacy in the form of having modelled kindness and compassion. Or there may be something else. A book? A story of our life or our family history for the next generation? What would you like to be remembered for? And how might you want to show care for the ones left behind, perhaps the way care was shown to you – or perhaps in a way you wish care had been shown to you.

How this looks in my life is that after clearing out my mother’s apartment, I looked around where I live and imagined what a job it would be for someone else to deal with my stuff. This is most definitely an ongoing project, but I have now begun decluttering. This is definitely enhancing my life! More order, more peace. I know this seems to contradict what I said earlier about not worrying so much about having a perfect house. There is definitely a both/and aspect to it!

To summarize:

Facing death can enhance our lives by:

  • Helping us know what really matters and prioritize our time and energy; helping us relax about the small irritations of life.
  • Motivating us to do the relational work of forgiveness and expressing our care today.
  • Opening us up to the bittersweet relationship between grief and gratitude.
  • Tune into the cycles of nature: birth/death, morning/night and feel a sense of kinship with the others in our shared humanity, our shared mortality. Remembering interdependence as part of life.
  • We can surrender the illusion of control over life itself while also taking charge of our own choices and what we want to leave behind.

From Thich Nhat Hanh:

I am going to die.
You are going to die.
We are all going to die.
In this present moment
We are alive
In the here and now.

Jean McElhaney has been ordained as an interfaith/interspiritual minister, certified as a Nonviolent Communication trainer, and licensed as a clinical social worker and professional counsellor (in the USA). She attended the third International Death Doula training on Maui in 2019.

She can be reached at