Updated: Feb 19, 2021
You are not alone. It’s a difficult topic, whether you have or haven’t yet encountered death. It’s likely you’ve been discouraged from asking questions and thinking deeply about it. Most people you meet likely haven’t felt safe experiencing the depth of feeling associated with their own losses, and therefore feel uncomfortable when someone approaches the topic. Over the course of your life you may have been introduced to one or two beliefs about what happens after death, and maybe a few options for what you might like to do with your body after you’ve died. But what might you gain by lingering with this cultural taboo, beyond the logistical concerns? How can death awareness open you to a richer experience of life?
The bottom line confronting you or anyone when death is in the room: ultimately, you are not in control. Whether you have suffered the devastation of suddenly losing someone close to you, are standing over a hospital bed listening to the EKG emit its rhythmic indication of a parent’s or grandparent’s pulse, or have just received news of a terminal diagnosis, you know the feeling. A world that once was relatively known and understood has suddenly become very narrow and unpredictable. From that moment onward the world has shifted. If you’ve had such an experience, you likely don’t feel inclined to speak about it, fearing you’ll burden someone, but you need to speak about it. There is a process unfolding within you. A transformation of your relationship with life. Perhaps one of the most important transformations you’ll ever experience.
Our current culture advises us to stay completely focused on growth, youth, success, self-improvement, and achievement. We are encouraged to pursue our own individual happiness through far flung aspirational goals, while we placate ourselves with instant gratification in the mean time. Happiness is a fine thing, but will these means truly achieve it?
What if this were the last day you had on this planet? How would you feel about the life you’d lived?
What if you had a month left to live? Or a year? Perhaps two years?
Would you spend it trying to further your career?
Would you continue your current line of work at all?
Would you go travel? Who would you bring? What if they couldn’t come? Would you go anyway?
Is there anything you’d like to complete or bring to resolution in the time you have left?
Would you want to leave something behind for those you care about?
You are going to die.
Those you love are going to die.
Take a moment and notice how acknowledging this feels in your body…
Take a moment to breathe…
An exercise in death awareness brings us to the essential reality that we lack control in a very fundamental way. Your feelings rise up in response to the awareness. Perhaps you feel anger or deep sadness or regret or fear, maybe even a sense of serenity. Whatever is there is simply what is there. There is no correct response, but maybe, amidst whatever feelings have arisen, there is some useful information—an insight into something that you value and want to shift your behavior around.
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t things which severely hamper the way you might want to live your life, as if this reading has suddenly unburdened you from the constraints of reality. Not at all. But is there something you might do differently? Is there some way you could treat yourself or someone else with more care and compassion? Have you tolerated some situation or habit you wish to change? Is there something you’ve felt called to do with yourself that you’ve put off?
If you’re afraid to talk about death, find opportunities to do so. Death Cafe’s are an excellent resource for this, but asking someone you trust if they’d be willing to share their experience with you is another route to go. Each time you make space for the topic, you are creating a window to peer through into the heart of what truly matters. Approaching the topic is probably the most challenging part. Once the conversation has begun, its just a matter of following your interest with warmth and curiosity. Give it a chance and it may reveal previously unknown pathways into deep states of happiness. However fleeting those feelings of happiness might end up being, they will offer nourishment and fulfillment to your soul. They will have been born from a recognition of how precious your life is, and savored, despite the unavoidable fact that your life will on some unknown day come to an end.
Warmly, Ben Murphy
“Not success, Not growth, Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life— is death.”