Everything you wanted to know about conscious dying but were afraid to ask.
Death has been stalking me for a more intimate relationship. He first showed up when my mother’s 92-year old partner was dying. Then I got a crush on an accidental deathwalker (death midwife) in Australia. Home again, I met Azul, who was eager to share his spiritual approach to dying, a year past when he “should’ve” died.
Next, death became a trickster as my friend Rosie, reacted to his terminal diagnosis with a new romance and 3 stand-up comedy performances about dying. In Bali, I witnessed a mass cremation, a ritual with richness and beauty that reached beyond time and space. We baby boomers have reinvented every life passage: love & relationships; cohabitating & marriage; childbearing & child-rearing; aging itself.
Are we, without noticing, reinventing death? Don, my tango partner, says “Cathy, dying doesn’t have to be sad,” and then takes medication from Oregon Death with Dignity. I bounce between fears, awareness, and denial. Yet death is ever-present. Though random, it’s certain, and soon my parents will die. I don’t want to lose them. Death will take them differently. My dad ,90, a medical doctor will use every medical means within reason to stay alive (I think…I don’t know because he doesn't like to talk about it.) while my mom, also 90, is so comfortable she discusses death as if planning a picnic. How do we prepare? Is it possible to die well?
Death is a teacher.
Many of us are scared of death. We feel unprepared both for our own deaths and the deaths of people (and animals!) we love. Our associations with death are morbid, dark, cold, depressing, and laden with grief and pain.
So we do not talk much about death.
In modern times, we have medicalized the end of life, and disconnected it from nature. In trying to prolong life by any means necessary, we only succeed in keeping death shrouded in darkness. By keeping our distance from death, cloaking it, hiding our eyes from it, we actually lose touch with a sacred phase of life. Because, as we all know, death is a part of life—for all of us.
This is not to say that we ought to look forward to death. After all, we are biologically wired to try and avoid it. Nonetheless, death and impending death offer profound opportunities to uncover value, grace, meaning, and even (in many cases) newfound eloquence. Even the physical challenges of chronic illness can move us into a new experience of purpose and connection.
This movie offers examples of living while dying. By breaking the mold of standard expectations, it invites us to re-imagine our own inevitable endings in new ways. As Dr Ira Byock points out, we can see dying as another developmental stage, like adolescence or midlife. And in fact, the people in this film die with a sense of wellness.
Every day presents us with the challenge of how to live well, regardless of our phase of life. Giving attention to life’s final phase is one way of shining light on the choices we make throughout our lives, especially the ways we treat others. Love and forgiveness are essential on any given day. But at the end, it is simply much easier to see this.
If we cultivate awareness of impermanence and attachment, this will serve us well in the face of death, because it allows us to see that grief is a form of praise--a natural way for love to honor what it misses. Ironically, in the greatest loss, we can discover comfort, joy, connection, and opportunities to practice gratitude. By facing death, our lives become richer, more wholehearted, and more authentic.
Today, movies can harness the power of the internet to create virtual support communities. Movies provide the emotional distance to make uncomfortable subjects approachable, and they offer an invitation to kindred spirits. LIVING WHILE DYING may serve as a tribal hearth in this way, as it both models ways of conducting “difficult” conversations around death, and shows how individuals, through their behavior and words, can bring presence and integrity to the sacred final phase of life.