For most people, death is that dark unknown to be feared. People fear it because they don't know when it will happen. Some of us live in denial of death; we pretend it doesn't exist, or that it will never happen to us. We distract ourselves from ever thinking about it. That fear blocks the awareness of what death can actually do for us. Death can actually save us from ourselves when we open up to its teaching.
While I was writing my will, it gave me pause to think about my life and my death, about what I have accomplished and what I would like to accomplish. I thought about the opportunities I took and the ones I missed. I thought about the relationships I've entered and the ones that have since ceased. And I realized my experience of life, moment to moment, has been a series of births and deaths. A moment comes; a moment goes. It's what I do with the moment that is important.
I was a curious child. Probably too curious for my own good, some would say. While my friends were playing with dolls and toys that didn't interest me, I was exploring the woods and my surroundings. I loved the adventure of discovering things. Whenever I came across a dead animal, I couldn't help but wonder about its death and its life. I made it a habit of burying them out of respect. One day I got the bright idea to bring home two dead muskrats. I wanted to know why these two creatures died. I grabbed the muskrats by their tails, dragged them home, and laid them out on top of my mother’s brand new picnic table, the perfect lab table for my new scientific laboratory. My mission was to discover how life worked. And what better way to study life than to study death? Victor Frankenstein, eat your heart out.
I immediately went to work. I sharpened some of my mother’s kitchen knives, laid out some of the needles I found in her sewing basket, and began my search. I made the first incision without any qualms. I slid the knife from the neck all the way below its stomach. I repeated the same incision on the second muskrat. I didn’t want to cut too deeply because I didn’t want to damage any of their organs, so as I made the incisions, I slowly peeled the layers open and pinned them so I could get my ungloved hands inside. Once inside, I suddenly felt deeply connected to something much bigger than myself. But my exploration stopped when my mother came home. She wasn't too pleased. She gasped in horror and made me throw everything away. "Why can't you be a normal child!" she exclaimed in frustration. Off to my room I was sent.
I felt terrible after she made me throw the muskrats' bodies into the trash. So, later, while she was taking one of her long showers, I untied the trash bags and carried my muskrats to the back of the yard. I plucked lilac blossoms from the unshaped bushes that lined the fence, grabbed the shovel from the shed, and proceeded to give them the proper burial they deserved. I prayed, “God, please accept these muskrats into heaven. Amen.” I covered them up and placed the lilacs on their little graves. God had two new playmates in heaven, and I helped them get there. I never did discover what made them die, but I did discover a new-found respect for life at an early age. I made friends with death that day. I even told my mother that I wanted to be a pathologist. I was sent to my room...again.
Every year we celebrate a birthday. Have you ever stopped to think that every year you also pass your death day, that day when you will shed your physical shell and depart life as you know it? What day will that be? Will it be on August 10th in 40 years? Will it be on December 22nd in ten years? We will never know until that day arrives.
How does one possibly make friends with death? It requires that we change our whole approach. First, you must challenge your fear about it. Examine your beliefs about death. Where did these beliefs originate? How did you develop your beliefs about it? Once you become conscious about those fears, then you can work to overcome them either through prayer and meditation, research and study, or some kind of counseling. When you face your fear, you take control of it and you take control of your life. Deprive death of its strangeness.
Second, cultivate an awareness of the immediacy of death. For many, this is a frightening thought because it threatens our sense of control. But at any given moment, realize that a part of our life is already gone. The other part has yet to happen. If you're 40, then 39 years are gone forever. Such a realization that death is imminent helps us to reconnect with the immediacy of life in the here and now. Keeping the thought of death in the forefront of our mind is to remember what is uniquely important to each of us. Being aware of the uncertainty of the time and date of our death is to be mindful that we are still alive. To accept death is to accept life.
When we accept death as a part of life, then we free ourselves from the fear of it. We free ourselves to live authentic, meaningful lives. We don't waste any part of life. We stop postponing what we really want. We begin to appreciate all that we have. In this way, death becomes a wise adviser and a true friend.