6 Things Death Can Teach Us About Life

fear of dying

Death can be the greatest teacher for how to live. Unfortunately, we avoid thinking about death with the same fervor as hoping our crazy uncle Ralph won’t find out about the family picnic. The delusion we can isolate death from life is as fictional as believing our dysfunctional relative won’t hear about the annual event we posted on Facebook.

Avoiding Thinking About Death

It’s easy to avoid thinking about death since culturally we are reinforced for delaying it: we rely on medical breakthroughs to keep us or the person we are caring for alive indefinitely.

Funeral preparations are meant to perpetuate the illusion our loved one is still with us (it's not uncommon to hear something like, “Look how good he looks—as if he’s sleeping”). When our children ask us about death, we fumble and often repeat what our parents told us so we wouldn’t fear death.

Our fear of death did not develop overnight. The thought of death when we were children was remote or non-existent. Parents discouraged conversations about dying as something that would traumatize us. We had not yet learned to divide life into artificial segments.

As we approached adulthood, death was something relegated to “old people.” In middle-age, we pretended our youth would last forever, and if we grasped tight enough to the Madison Avenue advertising image of youth, aging would be a process confined to others.

We entered “old age,” looking fearfully to our death and hoped by some miracle it would be postponed or if unavoidable, come quickly and painlessly.

 The zenith of our lives was something we saw in our rear-view mirror.

The Elephant’s Footprint

Our fear of death has so pervaded our history, we ignored everything death can teach us about living. The Buddha said that as the elephant leaves the greatest footprint in the jungle, so does death when it comes to living.

For eight years as a bedside hospice volunteer, I was fortunate to be welcomed into the lives of people who were dying. From them, I learned how to die, but more importantly how to change my life to make it more meaningful.

Think of life as an additive process: We learn and adapt to new circumstances, often adding layers and layers of ego defensives, rarely getting rid of them when no longer needed. I remember as a child growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania, my mother dressed me in multiple layers of clothes before she allowed me to go outside and play in the snow. The clothes fended off frostbite just as our ego-defenses serve a purpose in protecting us.

The clothes were no longer needed when I came back into a 70-degree house, and my mother stripped them off, unlike people who clutch “personal armor” long after its usefulness left.

People who have received a terminal diagnosis are rarely concerned with social niceties, ego-protective devices, or any of the other defensives we developed throughout our lives.

From this realization of limited time comes an honesty I’ve never found in any other situation. From interactions with people who are close to death I learned six things that can be done immediately to make your life and the life of the person you are caring for more meaningful.

The Lessons Are Universal

Why these six you may ask? In my eight years as a hospice volunteer and ten years as a caregiver counselor, these themes kept reoccurring despite the patient’s ethnicity, gender, experience, religion, personal values, or anything else. When present throughout the person’s life, death was easier. When absent, the regrets patients experienced interfered with an easier death.

One goal of hospice staff and volunteers is to provide compassionate care at the end of a patient’s life. It often is accomplished by enabling patients to take care of their regrets. Most of these regrets involved the absence of the following six lessons.

1. Offer forgiveness.

Everyone can think about an injustice they experienced from something minor, such as not being invited to a party, or as devastating as having your character publically assassinated. The memories of these unskillful acts are often more devastating than the original events.

Think about something hurtful you experienced in the past whose memory has lingered for years. The emotion pops up when least expected and often drains your focus, positive feelings, and ability to attend to unrelated activities. It remains there, barely hidden below your consciousness, constantly waiting to be resolved by a “just” action. When it isn’t, we replay the scene in ways that resolves the injustice, often "rearranging" events in order to satisfy our needs.

We may have held these negative feelings throughout our lives, waiting for “justice,” to avenge us, but if and when it arrives, it rarely comes with the strength necessary to soothe our pain. The Tibetans have a saying, ‘You can throw hot coals at your enemy but in the process, you’ll burn your hands.’ There is much wisdom in this ageless observation. Understand the price you are paying to hold on to your anger and sense of injustice. Rarely is it worth the continual emotional pain you suffer. Offering forgiveness is one of the best ways of reducing or eliminating the painful memories and allows you not only to die more easily but live more positively.

I witnessed easier deaths when people who are dying forgave an unskillful act. Try offering forgiveness immediately instead of waiting and enduring the pain for years. 

2. Understand if you can't forgive.

There are some cruelties you can’t forgive. My family lost 33 members in Auschwitz and an unknown number in Buchenwald. Although my mother emigrated to the United States well before the Holocaust, the knowledge of what the Nazis did stayed with her throughout her life. Her hatred of anything German went so far as refusing to ride in my Volkswagen.

While nothing can absolve Germans who did nothing during the rise of the Nazis, their acquiescence to something evil can be understood when you factor in the circumstances following the end of WWI. The depression of the 1920’s and 1930’s created massive unemployment, hunger, fear, and humiliation. People were unable to provide adequate food and shelter for their families. The emotional and physical needs of the country were ripe for the almost religious acceptance of a “savior,” regardless of what he was offering.

Given the hunger, fear, and humiliation the German citizens suffered following WWI, it becomes “understandable” that they closed their eyes and hearts to the atrocities of an authoritarian regime that promised them a better life. Not everything can be forgiven, but they can be understood. Through understanding, the negative impact of unskillful acts can be lessened while not being forgiven.

3. Ask for forgiveness.

Nobody is a Mother Teresa. We all have done things we regret. For some of the worst behaviors, we try to push the memories to the back of our minds; a mental exercise that’s rarely successful. When it is, as we approach death, it bubbles through our consciousness as if the barrier between awareness and repression is made of cheesecloth.

As patients near death, many of them voice regrets over things they did throughout their lives. One patient who abandoned her adolescent children was distraught when, now, as adults, they wouldn’t take her phone call knowing she was dying. Don’t wait to ask for forgiveness. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will become and more likely you won’t ask for it. When you have been unskillful in your words or behaviors, apologize ASAP.

4. Express gratitude. 

We often assume people who did something nice for us know we are grateful. Yes, that may be true, but to say the words, “Thank you,” and be the recipient of the expression is very powerful. I attended three “goodbye parties” when I was a hospice volunteer. The parties became events where the person who was dying, friends, and loved ones had an opportunity to express how grateful they were to have the other person in their life. Express gratitude on a timely continual basis.

5. Complete unfinished work.

We all have a propensity for procrastinating. Usually, the more difficult the task, the more likely it will be shoved off to the side and dealt with when time allows. A reoccurring theme with many people who are dying is the need to “clean their plate,” to take care of loose ends before they die.

Often this need is expressed in what may be considered bizarre ways. One patient with only a few days to live insisted on rearranging the nuts and bolts in his workshop because, according to his daughter, “It’s too messy here.” Another patient kept looking for a non-existent manuscript he needed to send to a publisher. For these patients and countless others, the need to finish was an allegory to what remained undone. Don’t allow work—physical or emotional—to remain unfinished.

6. Create a legacy.

As they prepare to die, many people ask themselves, “Have I made a difference?” They are dealing with the issue of “legacy.” Patients who contributed to the betterment of people could comfortably answer the question by saying, “Yes, I made a difference.” That difference could be embedding values in the lives of their children, significantly affecting the course of one person’s life, or changing the lives of thousands.

A legacy, whether it involved one person or thousands, eased my patient’s deaths. Patients without legacies struggled wondering if their life made a difference. There is an old story of a forgetful monk who couldn’t remember at the end of each day whether he did anything virtuous. His teacher suggested he carry two bags of pebbles; one full of black stones and the other white. At the end of each day, he was instructed to count the number of white and black stones. If he had more whites than blacks, it was a good day. Do the same for actions that enhance legacy—yours and the loved one for whom you are providing care. If you are unsure about your legacy, don’t wait until you are close to dying before developing it. Continually work on it.

You and Your Loved One

Don’t wait until you or the loved one you are caring for are close to dying before doing something that will ease your or their death. By learning from those who are dying, you can not only ease death but also create a path for how to live a better life.

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