How to die

July 10, 2015
Painting by Michele Armas

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.


35 comments on “How to die
  1. PatU says:

    I had a profound experience when I was 25 and nearly died. While I wouldn’t say I had a near death experience, I know that I was very close to death and made the decision to continue the fight and live. Dying would have been much, much easier, but that is inconceivable to me now, more than 35 years later.

  2. Joan says:

    Wow, PatU, your experience seems like one that would stick with you almost daily for the rest of life, as you continue to count it as a blessing to continue on for 35+ years afterwards…

    After watching both parents and my mother-in-law pass on in my presence, I can honestly say that I do not fear death. However I do think about two parts of it fairly often: one-how and when I will pass away and two-who will survive my passing, i.e.: spouse, children, five sibs who are still alive, friends I hold dear.
    Having lost many friends between the ages of 20-40, I have been impacted to LIVE each day as though it were my last, and I think for the most part, I do live this way. Thanks for sharing this Carol and this poem by Oliver Sacks is so poignant and thoughtful. I have printed it to share with others.

  3. I nearly hit a cow driving home late last night with my daughter,who I had picked up at the bus station. There’s no way we would have survived hitting a cow standing in the middle of the road. And all night, (weirdly, you posted this today) I was thinking about my mortality. I’m not afraid to die as I’ve been a caregiver for 7 different people for the last 25 years…but I am NOT READY to die. And I believe that is the point, as long as we are not ready, we can look at death as an invite to continue to live until we accept the invitation (if we are that lucky!) Thanks for a thought provoking post. I needed to get that cow off my back.

  4. Carol Graham says:

    I love this statement: 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.

    I do not fear death. I know where I am going. However, I have a whole lot more living to do. Longevity is in my genes and most of my family live to be close to or over 100.

    I have had more than one near-death experiences and it has contributed to my life.

  5. This is so my philosophy!!! It’s really part of life, so we should embrace it (of course, it’s still sad, but ignoring it doesn’t make it better, eh?) jodie

  6. Kimba says:

    For a year in my twenties I had this overwhelming concern that I was going to die young. It came out of no where, for no reason, and was crippling. Happy to now note that I’m still here in my fifties and still kicking it. But, it doesn’t mean, as you note, that the idea of death isn’t still there in the background and I won’t pretend that it’s not a bit frightening. But the fear of death shouldn’t keep you from fully living today, right?

  7. Hmmm. I can’t leave a platitude here, because you always ask us to think a little harder, Carol. I hope and believe that in death, we connect with the entirety of the universe. BTW, I just started watching a charming series called “Pushing Daisies” about a man who can bring people back to life. It is a strangely adorable show that has me feeling more comfortable about death.

  8. Amy says:

    Wonderful post, Carol. I have come close to death a few times due to health issues. I don’t remember an out of body experiences, life after death experience, etc. But nonetheless, I don’t fear death. It’s a natural part of life. I know that I was not expected to live at birth, not past 6 years of age, the doctors said. I’m not in my 50s and healthy. So there! lol I figure I’ve already been given so much more than was expected. When the time comes, I will accept it. I don’t know when that time will come and I rarely think about it. All of us are dying, yes. I love that you mentioned that. I choose to live while I die every day. I am a worrier, though. That’s something I wish I could wave a magic wand and make disappear. It’s so draining and useless. I’m getting better at not worrying–bit by bit. Have a wonderful weekend!

  9. Roz Warren says:

    When it comes to death, I just don’t think about it. I am sincerely hoping that the words “She never knew what hit her.” apply to me.

  10. Risa says:

    Carol, the hardest part of watching my sister work out “how to do this” as she was nearing death, was that there weren’t any answers for her. She wanted to know what would happen, would it hurt, would it just be better to stop fighting and stop eating and let it happen? It’s so painful to sit by and listen as the one person left in your life who has known you from day one begins to plan her departure from this world. I don’t think she believed in a life after death, wasn’t particularly religious. Despite her fears and sadness and helplessness, until the end she expressed her sympathy to us–her family and friends–who would be left to carry on without her. I’ll never forget how she ultimately took control and died on her own terms at a time when she had done and said all that was necessary.

    • She did a brave thing to take control of her own death, as much as possible. You know, faith has always been so hard for me, so I started from a different place, science, and ended up with faith. Go figure.

  11. Afraid of it? Yes. Not sure what comes next…but I hope something does!

  12. Beth says:

    I just lost a friend somewhat unexpectedly this week and spent a lot of time talking about the subject of death as one often does when this happens. I agree with Dr. Sachs…we should all have “intercourse” with the world and live each day fully and completely. I don’t want to spend a minute worrying about what happens after because if something does I won’t have any control.

  13. Janie Emaus says:

    Being consumed with the love of life. I love this! Death does scare be, mostly because of the known and I can’t fathom that this is all there is.

  14. My husband is a hospice volunteer, which is something I don’t think I could do. I’m going to share this with him.

  15. What I love about your blog is not only am I expected to think, but my thoughts are welcome! No one can do it wrong! I have shared with you my experiences with the “afterlife”. I don’t live in doubt on this. I know there is a continuation of life. I know I have lived before…I have a testimony of both. But even knowing that doesn’t make me eager to die. Just not afraid to die, although I would experience sadness at leaving my family here. This subject is not one I speak to often with people who may not agree with me because it is sacred and I don’t like people to make light of my beliefs. But you have always welcomed my thoughts and made me feel comfortable. Thank you….and keep asking good questions!!

  16. Ajay Pai says:

    Hello Carol, this post sounds so very natural and reflects truth of life. The day we are born, it is already written how we would end too. But, humankind, isn’t bothered and here we are.

  17. Lata says:

    I have always wondered why people shush you if you so much as begin enunciating the ‘D’ word. For me, death is inevitable. Death is a natural part of life. I have written some posts on it as well, including a poem In Death There Is Life. As of now, I can say death itself does not scare me. The process of dying does what with the horrendous costs of health care and the terrible strain on caregivers. And then, of course, who wants prolonged suffering?

    • Amy says:

      Hi Lata…I can relate to what you’re saying, for sure. Death is part of life. It is better to talk about it, get things all settled, then you can live your life more at ease about it.

  18. Vinitha says:

    Your article is thought provoking, Carol. I was always curious about what happens after death. I don’t fear my death as such, but I fear the death of people close to me. Death is dreadful to me only because of the losing part. I have written a letter to my death few years back, if you would like read it,

  19. Lana says:

    The words of Oliver Sacks are so beautiful and thought provoking. I don’t really fear death, but I fear leaving my children behind without a mother. Which happens to all of us at some point, but still, it’s hard to imagine. After being with my mother-in-law when she passed, I’m even more at peace with dying, and I know there is something more going on after we leave these bodies.

  20. As I grow older I fear death less and less. I suppose because I have been given an old age that is very easy and without a lot of pain, I am more grateful than fearful.

    In past years I have worried about the pain my children would endure but now I see that they have moved on in a great many ways so that is less a concern. I never think about it anymore. I am very lucky to be happy in the place I am and in the skin I have been given.

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