Painting by Michele Armas
Dying is one of the ceremonies of life. – Ram Dass
Most of us run from the idea of death as if it were the devil itself. But as we age, we can’t escape the thought that it’s our next big transition. It’s there, looming in the background, like a dark shadow. “The Grim Reaper,” we call it.
The mystery of death fascinates me because I just can’t believe that this is all there is. That the complex mechanism that is life–the world around us, our solar system, the galaxy and beyond–is just some random thing that happened with a big bang. We don’t get very far when we attempt to explain creation with our primitive science and it makes me laugh when we think that our failure to explain it adequately proves that this is all there is. We act as if we are the most advanced civilization ever. If only!
I believe there is something bigger, greater and more incomprehensible to life and that we aren’t going to explain it with the tools we have right now, and maybe never. Maybe it’s supposed to be a mystery. But there’s one thing we all can agree on:
Life is impermanent. This life is, anyway. Try as we might to escape it, we all die one day. It’s the one thing we all have in common. So, how to die? That’s the question.
Much-admired neurologist and one of my favorite writers, Oliver Sacks, is dying and wrote this beautiful observation about the experience.
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
What a graceful way to approach the end of life and what an inspiration to all of us, even those who are not actively dying.
This could be me.
As the years tick by and I work through the issue of mortality, our society’s terror of death becomes clear and so does the thought that we shouldn’t fear death as much as we do. That fear is rooted in the unknown. If only we knew! Listen, I do want to know and have become very well-read in the literature of death. Even though we have some tantalizing hints about what lies ahead, it’s not possible for most of us to really know death. I agree with those who say that it is impossible to understand it with our minds. But one of the most remarkable things I’ve learned is that those who have had a near-death experience lose their fear of death. Perhaps we can learn from them that there is nothing to fear.
Here’s what’s true: From the moment we draw our first breath, we’re all dying. But that doesn’t mean we can’t live. I think that’s what Sacks tells us. Even while dying, he is still engaged in the business of living. He’s not consumed by his fear of death, he’s consumed by his love of life.
And that makes for a good death.
I’d love to know your thoughts on the subject of death. Do you fear it? Have you had a near-death experience? Let’s talk about it and start losing our fear of the inevitable.