Whether and how much to talk about death with our children has been a point of debate between Richard and me for years. “We talk to them about death too much”, Richard would remark. “We mustn’t focus on it so frequently. They’re young and it could traumatise them.” “But death is an inevitable part of life,” I would reply. “We shouldn’t make talking about it a taboo.” We would then lapse into silence, dwelling on each other’s and our own unsure thoughts about the right balance between the topics of life and death in conversation.
For a while I have been fascinated by books written by authors who are terminally ill themselves or working with the terminally ill. I devoured “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi, “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom, and more recently “How to Live When You Could be Dead” by Dame Deborah James. Those who are staring their own mortality in the face can sometimes channel the greatest knowledge about how to live. What these books have in common, which I find myself drawn to like a magnet, is this access to humanity’s deepest wisdom, acquired through the unbiased lens of someone fully aware that their end is nearing.
I recently faced some health-related investigations which heightened my sensitivity to death and made me re-appreciate how useful a companion the thought of it is when searching for life’s meaning. Having lost a parent young, thoughts about death had been no stranger to me throughout my whole adult life. But it was only recently that it dawned on me that the denial and avoidance of death is humanity’s most pervasive and regressive bias. Instead of accepting death as an intrinsic part of life, we have tossed it into the dilapidated basement of our consciousness and replaced it with the illusion that we are here to stay. With profound implications for the world we have built for ourselves and the connections we forge with others. Uncoupling life and death has stripped away the urgency of looking for meaning in our existence. When you think you will live forever, there is no imminent need to make sure that your life is meaningful. You can discount the future, focus on that “issue” later, on another day. In Western cultures - whose hedonistic view holds happiness of the self in the highest regard - the focus tends to shift disproportionately to a search for joy, material abundance and fun in life, certainly until we hit middle age. At that point, for some (though not all!) it becomes more energy-sapping to deny death or think of it in the abstract. The attempt to find permanence through establishing deeper connections and giving more than receiving becomes a coping strategy, a redemption for mistakes accumulated over a lifetime or simply an expression of one’s deeper nature, love of life, God and/or all sentient beings.
The fear or even terror we feel about dying is another by-product of the uncoupling of life and death. Our fears of death, summed up so poignantly in Woody Allen’s notorious statement - “It’s not that I am afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens” - often lead to us seeking to repress and avoid anything that reminds us of our own mortality. This could be by avoiding someone else who is nearing death or by repressing our feelings about our own demise. I was taken by Deborah James’ confession in her book that her cure for her ongoing and severe panic attacks related to her dying was finding out that she was actually dying. My hypothesis for this rather counterintuitive development is that suddenly all was out in the open, and there was no longer any repression of fears that needed to be expressed and worked through.
Our fears result not only in us not fully showing up for people who really need us as their passing becomes imminent, but also not fully showing up for our own death, leaving our own plane of existence without a parachute: unconsciously and chaotically spinning out of control as we depart. Or we leave life medicated to the brim in hospitals, most likely barely aware of who we are. But it needn’t be this way. If we invited death back inside the tent and demystified it, it might take away some of the pain and fear associated with our passing and that of those we love. We could talk about it and prepare for it. For at any moment, it is only ever an exhale away. We could hold the space more fully for our loved ones who are experiencing it, instead of shutting down any conversations about death leaving everyone involved feeling lonely, isolated and emotionally abandoned in their time of greatest need. We have classes on how to live well, become a parent, find a job, care for others or change careers. Why not for how to prepare for dying? In her profound “Being with Dying” book, Joan Halifax – an anthropologist and Buddhist, a bridge between Western and Eastern wisdom - argues experientially and masterfully that learning to live in the presence of death helps us rid ourselves of the shackles of anxiety and fear associated with it, and supports us in living more fully, viscerally, meaningfully and lovingly in a universe where “change is inevitable, but growth is optional”. Accepting to live with an awareness of our death is one of our and our children’s biggest growth opportunities. And a welcome opportunity to feel our fundamental unity as human beings, as polarized as we nowadays are, in the realisation that we are all on this impermanent journey together, interconnected and profoundly equal in the end.