The news we all fear to hear of one day.
The final destination we certainly don’t wish for.
Yet, death is the most inevitable part of life.
We love how Dr. Richard Kalish describes the way our society currently views death:
Death is blasphemous and pornographic. We react to it and its symbols in the same way that we react to pornography. We avoid it. We deny it exists. We avert our eyes from its presence. We protect little children from observing it and dodge their questions about it. We speak of it only in whispers. We consider it horrible, ugly and grotesque.
In response to this, the ancient Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, advises parents to lean into that fear when he says: “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?” he wrote in his Discourses.
The disconnect between us and death
In our society, we avoid talking about death. And while most of us wish to die at home, and die well, only 25% of us actually do die at home. How do we die well without preparing for such an event?
All of these movements and events and even career paths point us to one very evident conclusion: people want to become more intimate with death in our society.
If you’re still not convinced on why intimacy with death is important for life, lets go over these very convincing reasons from experts in their fields:
Reason #1: Avoidance of death affects our subconscious minds negatively
“Subconscious fear of death drives us in negative ways, whereas open fear of death or open acknowledgement of our own deaths can help us in positive ways.”
– Caitlin Doughty, Order of the Good Death
In other words, what we avoid, takes a hold of us. We cannot master what we avoid. It will continue to wreak havoc in our lives until we find acceptance within ourselves around said topic or experience. Just like the quote “what you resist, persists”. What you avoid, will rule your life.
Reason #2: Learning about what makes us anxious makes it feel not as big and scary
“When something gives me anxiety, I find that learning about it helps me. If there are certain elements of it that I can then prepare for or control, it gives me a little bit of comfort, as opposed to being thrown into a horrible situation. If and when someone dies in my life now, I am able to be more present in what’s going on and deal with the loss instead of internally panicking about what I will do next.
– Sarah Chavez, Order of the Good Death
Instead of letting our subconscious fears control our lives, Sarah Chavez recommends feeling the fear, and stepping closer to it anyways. By doing this, she says that we are better equipped to deal with death better when it comes knocking. So by learning more about death and how to have a good death, we can feel comforted by our own preparation efforts. Whether it’s our own death, or another’s.
Reason #3: Death gives us the gift of presence
“If we live in a state of ignoring our own mortality, then we don’t always appreciate the present moment, we’re always living in the future. But if we accept that we are mortal, then we focus more on living and today and what is good.”
– Brigid Haines, Death Cafe Cymru
I wrote about this years ago in this blog on accepting death as a necessary part of life, and it still does, and always will, reign true. Death has its way of bringing us to gratitude and presence. When we remind ourselves of the fragility of life, we become remarkably grateful for it. Even the small moments. And in its the small moments of gratitude that we make a good life.
Reason #4: Death awareness decreases depression and increases self esteem
In one study, a researcher asked participants to “write about death or another aversive topic each day for one week, or… just reply to specific questions in an email each day on which they have to spend five to ten minutes.”
According to the researcher’s findings, participants “have been reporting lower levels of depression, increased positive mood, increased self-esteem and increased intrinsic motivation.”
Isn’t it morbid to write and think about death? Maybe not, according to research. The study came to the conclusion that it would actually be good for those who are mildly depressed to write about their own death consistently for a few minutes a day. Ironic yet true. Owning our mortality can increase our capacity for happiness!
Reason #5: Death keeps life exciting and new
“I know we’re supposed to be super afraid of death. But it’s good, isn’t it? If life never ended, think about it, right? Isn’t that like every vampire story or sci-fi movie? If you live too long, after a while, you just lose it. Life no longer has any meaning, because it’s commonplace.”
When we know we’re going to die, we don’t wait to seize the opportunity or move towards our dreams. When we’re aware our time is limited, we don’t waste it. And the opposite is true. If we think we’ll live forever, or we can evade death, we’ll stay sitting on the couch. Consider death our greatest motivator.
Reason #6: When we recognize our mortality, we become better, kinder people
“According to research done on socioemotional selectivity theory, older people are more present-oriented than younger people, and are more selective in who they spend time with, sticking mostly with family and old, close friends. Other studies have shown them to also be more forgiving, and to care more for others, and less about enhancing themselves.”
Isn’t it true that grandma is always way more fun to hang out with than our parents? Elderly people, as they approach death, learn virtue. When we’re “young and dumb”, we sometimes forget the importance of virtue. So the invitation isn’t only to think about our own death more, but to also spend more time with elders. They help to give us the advice and wisdom we simply can’t access when we’re not nearing death’s doors.
Reason #7: Death awareness is transcendental and enlightening
“Since awareness of death is what prompted the Buddha to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. Realizing that death is inevitable for a person who is caught up in worldly pleasures and attitudes, he resolved to renounce the world and devote himself to finding a solution to this most basic of existential dilemmas. After years of diligent and difficult practice he became enlightened, and through this he transcended death.”
If the Buddha can become enlightened by contemplating his own death for many years, we too, must be able to access some form of transcendance when we find acceptance in our own mortality.
We may not become a Buddha under a tree, but we can certainly navigate this life with a little more kindness, compassion, awareness, presence, gratitude, inspiration and grace.
How have you found getting intimate with death to be helpful for your life? Tell us about it in the comments below!