What Can Death Teach Us about Life and Living?

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“Death is the tyrant of the imagination.”—Bryan Proctor

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”—Khalil Gibran

“Without health– life is not life; it is only a state of languor and suffering” – an image of death.—Buddha

By Dave Hood

The ancient Greek writer and thinker, Euripides, said, “No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.” You are reminded of this truth every day. For instance, you read about a successful Hollywood actor who dies from a heroin overdose. You watch the news on television, learning of a man who died accidently, driving his Austen Mini into a tree. He wasn’t paying attention or wearing a seatbelt. A friend tells you of a co-worker who passed away after a long struggle with cancer. You recall the time when the telephone rang in the middle of the night, waking you out of a relaxing sleep. You’re told that your elderly grandmother has died unexpectedly from a stroke. Each of these events reminds you that death can arrive at any time. You are also become aware that death is part of life.

What can death teach you about life and living?

The Denial of Death
Most people deny death. They deny death because they fear death and what happens after. Thinking about death creates anxiety. Sometimes, the thought of death creates existential angst. Death provokes people to consider their inescapable fate and to ponder questions about death and the afterlife: What happens to the human spirit after death? Does death result in nothingness or nonexistence? Or is there some sort of rebirth or eternal existence? Denial helps people to cope with questions that cannot be answered in this life.

Many people also deny death by deluding themselves into believing death will happen in the far future, in old age. The reality is that death can come for you at any time, like a thief in the night. You might die by accident, illness, misadventure, mistake, poor judgement, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or old age. And when you look around, you see how many people die unexpectedly, such as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John F. Kennedy, and countless others. Yet, many people delude themselves into believing “there’s always tomorrow.”

Even when diagnosed with terminal illness, most people deny death. The first response of a terminally ill person, according to Elizabeth Kubler Ross, author of “On Death and Dying,” is denial. Rather than contemplate death, the person copes by denying it. Denial is the first stage of Kubler Ross’s model of “five stages of grief.” The person might say, “I feel fine” or “this cannot happen to me.

Soon after, the person begins to feel anger, which is the second stage of the grieving process. The person might ask, “Why me? Or “This isn’t fair!” The person might also resentment or anger toward others who are healthy.

Eventually, the person realizes their fate and ties to bargain for more time. The person might ask God: I’ll do anything if you’ll only give me a few more years.” Bargaining is the third stage of the grieving process.

When bargaining doesn’t stop the terminal illness, the person will understand the certainty of death and often become depressed, which is the fourth stage of grief. The person will often feel sad and hopeless, and withdraw from human contact. Many things in the person’s life no longer have meaning or importance. The person might say, “What is the point of going on?”

The finally stage of the grieving process is acceptance. The terminally ill person accepts the fact that he or she will die, and then prepares for death. Often the person will withdraw into themselves. Their interests will diminish, such as the problems and issues of the outside world. If the person doesn’t have a will, he or she will often have one prepared. The person might also share their wishes for funeral arrangements and burial. Kubler Ross writes: “Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happiness stage. It is almost void of feelings. It is as if the pain has gone, the struggle is over, and there comes a time for the final rest before the long journey.”

Yet, for many, death is a taboo subject, something that shouldn’t be discussed or thought about, and so they refuse to ponder questions about dying and death, until they have no choice.

Regrets of the Dying
Some people die peacefully, while others die with regrets. According to Bonnie Ware, who worked as palliative care nurse for five years, and then wrote “The Five Regrets of Dying,” most people who have regrets express the following:

  1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not the life others expected. And so, people die with unfilled dreams.
  2.  I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. When a person is dying, work has lost its meaning. The person wishes they’d spent more time enjoying their life.
  3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings. The person has not been true to themselves. The person has not expressed his or her true feelings and had to make compromises, in order to keep “the peace.”
  4.  I wished I had stayed in touch with my friends. When death is near, many people desire to say goodbye to friends and loved ones. Often they’ve lost touch with former friends.
  5.  I wish I had let myself be happier. Many people didn’t realize that happiness was a personal choice. Many feared change and preferred to remain in their comfort zone. In other words, they could have taken steps to improve their happiness and well-being, but chose not to because of fear.

Sometimes the dying have regrets. The dying scream out to us, “Live your life. Embrace your passions. Some day, when you least expect it, you might lose the chance to live your dreams.”

What Happens When a Person Dies?
When someone dies, most people’s initial response is shock and disbelief. If the person is a loved one or good friend, most people pass through a process of grief, which begins with denial and ends in acceptance. Most people feel sad and grieve. Most people are able to move on with their lives once they’ve grieved for some time.

When someone dies, most people contemplate death for a brief time. They understand biological death. The heart stops pumping, the lungs stop inhaling and exhaling oxygen, the brain ceases to function, the person loses consciousness. After death, the person is cremated. The ashes are then placed in a vase. Or the deceased is embalmed, dressed in their best clothes, then placed in a coffin. After the funeral, the body is buried in a cemetery. As time passes, the body and organs decay. All that remains is a human skeleton.

Some people have experienced “near death.” They have died and then been brought back to life by medical intervention. Those who have a near death experience claim that they had consciousness during their temporary death. But there’s no way of proving these claims.

What Happens After a Person Dies?
Their wealth, power, status, and trappings of success become irrelevant. Their possessions, such as car, furniture, and home, are given away or sold. Their work is forgotten or redistributed to someone else. Their friends move on and find new friends. Their loved ones, such as a husband or wife, meet and fall in love with someone else, and begin a new life. All that remains are photographs, family videos, memories, and a plot in the cemetery. It as though the person has never existed.

What happens to the human spirit or soul after death? If you are a Buddhist, you don’t believe in a soul. However, you believe that death results in rebirth. If you are a Christian, you believe that death leads to eternal life for those who are good and hell for those who are evil. If you are an Atheist or existentialist, you believe that death results in nonexistence or nothingness. If you are one of the secular, you probably don’t give death much thought. And, if you do, you probably have some vague beliefs based on religion or “New Age” thinking. If you are an Agnostic, you don’t really know what happens to the soul after death. The truth is —none of us know.

What Can Death Teach You about Living?
Death teaches you that the afterlife is one of the great mysteries of humanity. There is no right answer— only belief and faith and hope.

Death teaches you that life is precious. Therefore you ought to do everything in our power to live a healthy lifestyle. You ought to live a life of moderation—not smoking cigarettes, not drinking alcohol excessively, not taking illegal drugs, not eating yourself into obesity. Furthermore, we should not live recklessly, such as jumping out of a plane in a parachute, climbing the side of a mountain without a harness, taking part in extreme sports, taking other reckless chances. If you value life, you respect it.

Death teaches you that life is impermanent. There is no escape from death. We are all going to die some day. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, successful or ordinary, evil or good, you are going to die one day. Everyone dies—Nelson Madelia, Mother Teresa, Adolph Hitler, and Bin Laden, even you.

Death should teach you to savour life’s simple pleasures, such as watching a gorgeous sunset, playing a game of cribbage, enjoying a loving relationship, reading an entertaining book, listening to awe-inspiring music, journal writing, spending time in solitude, like David Henry Thoreau’s experience at Walden.

Death teaches you to focus your time and effort on what is important—those things that add meaning and purpose, happiness and well-being, to your life. Many things offer only temporary pleasure, such as sex, travel, delicious food. Other things are engaging and create more permanent happiness: Love. Work or career. Family and Friendships. Leisure pursuits. Fitness. Good mental and physical health. Religion and spirituality.

Death teaches you to live mindfully, in the present moment. Mindfulness means becoming aware of the here and now, and not being lost in thought. Mindfulness means becoming aware of your sensory details of your life–what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The past is a memory that cannot be altered. The future is unknown, despite all the planning and hope and preparation. You are only guaranteed this moment, the present moment of time. By living mindfully, you will stop worrying about the future, and start enjoying the present. In reality, you only have this present moment.

Death teaches you to express gratitude for life. You can achieve this by “counting your blessings.” Life can always be worse. We often make ourselves unhappy by comparing our lot in life to others. We often make ourselves unhappy by convincing ourselves that “I’ll be happy when I achieve the promotion, get married, have children.” These are just myths of happiness. By counting your blessings, you focus on what you have. Focusing on what you have will elevate your sense of well-being. For instance, the most important thing in life is good health. Without it, you will experience a poor quality of life. And yet, many people take their good health for granted.

How do you desire to be remembered? Most people desire to be remembered honorably and respectfully by loved ones, co-workers, and friends. They want to be remembered as a person who “lived well.” They want to be remembered as kind, compassionate, loving, generous person—not someone who is miserly, nasty, selfish. When a person dies, most people don’t remember the deceased’s wealth, power, status, success. They remember how the deceased treated them, how the deceased made them feel. Death teaches you to leave a legacy of love and respect and generosity.

Final Thoughts
When someone dies, I feel sadness, and I reflect on death. Did the person suffer? Was the person at peace? What does it mean to die? Is there an afterlife?

I fear death—I don’t know what will happen after I die. Often, I believe that death will result in nonexistence, much like an endless sleep, without consciousness.

The thought of death often creates existential angst. Sometimes I think—life is absurd, especially if the end is death. In other words, “we are born to die.”

I believe that many people deny death, especially in western society. I look around and see so many workaholics who are unable to enjoy their lives. They don’t give death much thought. Would they live their lives differently, if they really believe that they were going to die some day? I see so many people desiring not just the essential material possessions and comforts of a desirable life, but the excess of extravagance, especially those people who worship wealth, power, and status. Each of these will be taken away by death, often when the person least expects it.

Studying Buddhism and growing older have increased my awareness of death. I’ve realized that death is part of life. I’ve also realized that death can teach us how to live better lives—living mindfully. Growing older and realizing that life does not go on forever have also altered my views on life and death. I try to live mindfully, focusing on the present moment. I also focus my time and energy on those people and activities that provide meaning and purpose to my life.

What I now value in life is dramatically different that what I valued as a young adult, thirty years ago. In the 80’s, I focused on completing university, settling down, building a career, getting married, children, acquiring material comforts, such as a car. I didn’t give death much thought. Now, I think about it, especially when I learn that someone has died. Each day, I count my blessings, especially for good health. I also focus on what is important, expressing my creativity, good health, friendship, spirituality, and so forth. I try not to waste any time.

I’m not sure whether there’s an afterlife. I hope there is, but I don’t know for sure. The afterlife is one of those mysterious questions that I cannot answer in this life. Furthermore, when I die, I might not be able to answer this question either, especially if death results in a loss of consciousness, nothingness, nonexistence.

Additional Reading
• On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler Ross
• How We Die by Sherwin B. Nuland
• Wake Up to Your Life by Ken McLeod
• The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
• The Five Regrets of Dying by Bronnie Ware
• Tuesday’s With Morie by Mitch Albom

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About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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