Death is a fact of life. It is the ultimate life passage. Death and dying is a great adventure in which we all participate. It can also be a gift, transforming how we live our lives.
We have all experienced death at various times in our lives. Some have had more encounters with death and dying than others and some at younger ages. Some actively engage in the process and some choose to avoid it as long as they can. Many people fear death, but there are others who have cultivated a deeper understanding of their own mortality and are not afraid to die.
My life has been marked and measured by the passing of friends and family members, some who died suddenly in car accidents or by suicide and others over a period of time from a terminal illness. Death and dying have shaped my life.
My understanding of death and dying was honed by a dear friend. When we were 28 years old, she learned that the many lumps in her breasts were not merely cysts, as she had been told when she was younger, but malignant tumors. The cancer had metastasized throughout her body. This brilliant writer and soon-to-be lawyer was given three to six months to live.
Over the course of the ensuing two years, in pursuit of alternative treatments and answers to her questions, she became one of Bernie Siegel’s “incredible cancer patients” described in Love, Medicine and Miracles, a cook on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Healing Waters Farm, and our guide on her end-of-life adventure.
Her friends learned first-hand about all the stages of grief. We felt her fear and wrestled with what comes next. This was a life-changing time for me. My friend’s terminal illness initiated my search for answers that would anchor my beliefs—not just about what happens after we die, but how to live well and die well.
As a regular attender of Quaker meeting, I found a welcoming place to deepen my spiritual life. Through the ministries of Friends, I garnered a more expansive view of Christian teachings. However, as my dear father-in-law was dying, I was given Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It was through the Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation that I made sense of the death of my friend and the many friends and family who have died in the years since. The exploration of both these religious traditions has given me the ability to meet people wherever they are in their path toward death, regardless of their beliefs.
The ease with which I approach death and dying may be why people over the years have engaged me in their own investigation of this forbidden topic. This has led me to train as a death doula, home funeral guide, and Life-Cycle Celebrant who officiates at ceremonies celebrating the dead. As a professional facilitator, I determined that I could provide an important service by presenting an opportunity for everyone, not just friends, to come together to discuss death and dying.
Death Cafés have become a worldwide movement responding to the demonstrated need of individuals who don’t have friends or family members willing to engage in a lively conversation about death and dying. Joining with others, often strangers, in a casual safe space like a coffee shop, community room, or someone’s home, to have an open-ended conversation with no agenda turns out to be very appealing. These gatherings fill a void in our society where, as some participants said, “It is taboo to talk about dying.” According to the founders of the Death Café movement, the aim is to “increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” For some, this is their first foray into frank, candid conversations about death, while others are providing elder care, wanting to assist their parents in achieving a dignified death. Some participants just want to be informed and prepared, and to develop a vision for how they would like to die.
A colleague, a death midwifery practitioner, and I offered a series of five Death Cafés in five communities throughout the month of March. A friend said, “Couldn’t you have named it something else? Who do you think is going to come and talk about death?” As it turned out, a surprising number of people responded. Providing a time and place for people to share stories, confide their fears, or ask questions of others has resulted in new friendships and forged new paths for participants in their personal journeys with and approaches to death and dying. This has been followed by requests to organize more Death Cafés: “No, not next fall, next month!”
Facilitating Death Cafés has reinforced what I have come to understand about death and dying. In answer to the query, “We’re living longer and dying longer. How do we make decisions on end-of-life care for our loved ones, and ourselves?” My conviction has been affirmed that it is deeply personal, individual, and diverse.
This is true for Friends as well. When seasoned Friends were asked during a recent monthly meeting retreat, “How do Friends approach the end of life? Do Quakers have insight into what happens after we die?” They responded that each Friend has their own perspective and belief, and answers to these questions will be based on their own experience. This has certainly been true for me.
There are so many practical questions to consider, ranging from the legal requirements, to ceremonies and rituals, to the disposal of our bodies; there include but not limited to:
- Have we completed our wills and accompanying powers of attorney?
- Have we considered our advance care directives and do not resuscitate (DNR) orders?
- Do we wish to remain in our home and engage hospice at end of life or relocate to a retirement community with an assisted living/care facility?
- Do we want to die at home or in hospital?
- Do we have a home funeral with family and friends or a traditional service in a church or funeral home?
- Do we have our body cremated and the ashes collected to be present at a celebration of life in a backyard, community hall, or park at a later date?
- If we are cremated, where can our ashes be dispersed?
But a far more important question is how do we live life more fully?
Our life is precious and sometimes all too short. These questions require exploration and contemplation, and decisions need to be made. This final life passage demands our utmost attention and communication while we are in good health and of sound mind. It is about time we look to this fundamental fact of life and consider how we wish to die and what it will look like. For Friends, a clearness committee can help us navigate through these daunting questions and discern what is the right path. A committee of care can provide support for Friends during their final journey. For others it means considering who, of your family and friends, would be most supportive in this discernment process. Death and dying offer us a grand opportunity to have one of the most important conversations with our loved ones in our lifetime so that we can die consciously and gracefully. These dialogues can transform relationships and lives.
My favorite story about how someone approached death is that of an old farmer who was dying, having lived well into his 90s. His daughter was sitting by his bedside during his final days and asked “How are you feeling?” and he responded, “I am so excited.” “Why?” she asked. “I finally get to learn what is on the other side!” he replied. His curiosity opened a new window, a new view on death and the question we all have pondered, “What happens after we die?” Again different religions and cultures have different beliefs, and people have developed different views on the afterlife, some based on a personal near-death experience. With all these possible perspectives and much speculation over the centuries, what happens next remains the ultimate mystery.
At the end of the day, what we believe and how we deal with death is a matter of personal choice. With care and attention we can craft a new way to approach death that is perfect for us. In the process, we can develop more awareness around our own mortality, embrace it and reap the rewards of living more completely. By accepting that death is a fact of life, this final adventure can be a gift, if we’re open to receiving it.