Some people think that if they prepare for death, death will come knocking.
With 20 plus years of experience now, walking amidst death, I’ve witnessed the results of preparing for death and the consequences of what happens when death is allowed to come as a surprise.
Each of us will die, not one of us will be left out. This is a fact. For the majority of humankind, the time of our death is unknown. But death is inevitable. One would think that with this knowledge, each of us would prepare for the death event. If each of us understood that sometime in our life, we would be going on a major trip that would result in not returning to our home, severing ties with all of our loved ones, and leaving our precious possessions behind – we would pay greater attention to how we live our lives; now, today, and in our limited future. If we accepted death as a fact of life, we would come to understand what we cannot take with us. Because this trip is at times unexpected, we might need to express our love, apologize for unskillful ways, say our goodbyes, forgive, and be current with our loved ones and friends, not leaving hard/hurt feelings. This seems to be the one thing that each of us has in common: why then are we so resistant to talk about death and prepare for it? Some people think that if they prepare for death, death will come knocking.
I’ve witnessed that those who prepare for death are able to step forward in the last moments of their physical body, with ease, grace, and compassion for themselves and their loved ones. For those who have not prepared, there is often confusion, worry, regret, and a feeling that they’ve left things undone; that they are leaving their loved ones with a burden to dismantle. Sadly, that is exactly what is happening. It’s hard enough in our health to prepare for death. For those who are ill and facing death in a short period of time, trying to prepare for the end can be a daunting and seemingly impossible task. The consequences of these two choices – to prepare or not to prepare – has lasting emotional, physical, mental and financial impacts on our loved ones left behind, often mirroring the effects of the choice the dying or deceased made in life.
For several years now I’ve been teaching a course: Preparing for your own good death and life. This course is held over a one year period, meeting once each month for 3 hours. In the beginning of the course, participants are nervous, apprehensive and a bit fearful of death. As the months roll by, we contemplate the things that make up our lives: our loved ones, friends, possessions, ideas, conditioning, beliefs and postures, online identity, pets, etc. Yes, it’s a tedious, hard and sometimes sad, frustrating, and fearful endeavor; there is also joy, wisdom, and a sense of satisfaction in being present to all that arises. There is now fearlessness in thinking about our own death. At the end of the year course, there is also an experience of ease and joy in having a plan laid out. In preparing for our own death, we are better prepared for the deaths of our loved ones.
I have witnessed that when individuals who are facing death have taken precious time to provide information for their family and friends, they were able to be fully present to their own limited life, leading up to their last breath. They had planned for this event and were fearless. And in return, armed with this gift of knowledge, their loved ones were also able to be fully present to themselves and their dying loved ones. When this happens, a sense of spaciousness arises, with many possibilities.
When we ignore death and refuse to prepare, when death does come, there are fewer options. Because we haven’t educated ourselves, we are likely to get caught up in the “usual way it’s done” and the event may feel less personal. We feel less connected to our dying or deceased loved one. This person we love has now become a body and is whisked away. Strangers are handling the tasks that are our legal right to perform. We are losing out on the opportunity to care for our own dead and all of the healing, transformation, and other benefits that can come when we are the ones performing these final acts.
To me, the lives and deaths that were most precious were when the preparation was a family and community affair. Death was not tucked away and hushed up. It was a fact of life, a natural event to be planned for and celebrated. Children were welcome to be present with their curiosity and innocence. Pets were also included. There was a natural flow through the dying process, death, lying in state in the home, and the procession to burial or cremation. When an individual fully prepares for their end of life and their wishes come to fruition, it is hard for me to contain my joy for their journey and their success. Yes, tears and sadness are present, but simultaneously, there is happiness and gratitude.
At Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, when family and friends are gathering for a burial, I get a sense that some folks are nervous about this green burial they are about to witness. As soon as we begin the procession to the grave site, walking through nature, that nervousness drops away. This is an ancient ritual, walking with our dead to lay their body to rest. During the graveside service and while covering the grave, I hear voices express the wish, “This is what I want… I didn’t know this was possible.” Also remembering, “When Dad died, I wasn’t allowed to…” We are beginning to chip away our contemporary rigid beliefs that death has to be a certain way, taken care of by strangers, and taken out of our hands. When family, friends, and community take back this ritual into their own hands and hearts, they are able to give back to their loved one who has died, rejoicing in their activity of creating ceremony, remembering and covering a grave. It is incredibly beautiful.
If you have prepared for your old age, dying and death, congratulations. If not, take a deep breath, expand your heart with love for yourself and your love ones, and with ease, begin to write down your ideas for the end of your life. Sometimes it helps to remember your own past losses and what was meaningful. Our loved ones who have passed on are still contributing to our lives today.
Resources: Preparing for Death
- Online Course: End of Life Planning Made Simple
- Planning Booklet: The Advanced Death Care Directive
- Advanced Care Planning/Living Will: 5 Wishes
- Online End of Life Planning and Record Keeping: Everplans
- Death Preparation Checklist: It’s Ok to Die
- Online Tool for Estate Planning: Willing
- Tools for Talking About Death: The Conversation Project
- Tips for Talking With Your Loved Ones About the End Of Life
- National Home Funeral Alliance
- Asheville Workshops: