By Cat Saunders
I hope this essay provides safe harbor for you to contemplate your death. If your beliefs about death are already set in concrete, or if you’re too frightened to think about death, that’s okay. You can always skip this article, but unless you’re some kind of ascended master, you can’t skip death. No matter what you do or don’t do, you’re still going to die. What kind of a deal is that?
Personally, I think it’s a good deal. Consider the alternative. Do you really want to live forever in the same body while everyone and everything else evolves and changes form? As far as I’m concerned, death is one of nature’s most brilliant inventions. You know that slogan, renew/recycle/reuse? Well, death is nature’s ultimate recycler. Death recycles life! If it wasn’t for death, you wouldn’t be here, and neither would I.
Nearly everyone has stories about death. What’s your experience with it? Take some time to consider this legacy. What events have shaped your thinking about death?
Maybe you could write a personal account of death, tracing its effects through the twists and turns of your life. Include details about the deaths of friends, relatives, and animals you’ve loved. Notice all the nuances of emotion as you reminisce about your experiences with death.
Pay close attention to emotions that are so strong they carry you back to the time of your loss. Death has a special way of carving more space in the contours of your heart. From the depths of pain, compassion may arise like a rainbow after rain. Be gentle with your grief; it’s a precious source of understanding and empathy.
When you’re ready, slowly shift your focus and consider your family tree. Do you know anything about the deaths of relatives in past or present generations? Did your relatives live a long time, or did some of them drop dead at an early age? Do you believe that your own death is partly, fully, or not at all determined by family patterns, whether behavioral or genetic?
If the longevity of relatives doesn’t factor into your thinking about death, then what do you think does determine your life span? Is there a particular age at which you expect to die? Do you believe you can control the length of your life by exerting your will? Do you think fate plays a role in your death? Whether your worldview is monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, agnostic, or atheist, how does the matter of death timing fit into your belief system?
Safe Channels and Surfing the Waves
Check in with yourself at this point. How are you doing with all these questions about death? If this work is scary for you, take some time to be with your fear. Find a safe channel, as Arny Mindell would say, to explore your experience.
Do you feel most comfortable in the realms of vision and images? Then perhaps you can write or draw your fear. Do you feel more grounded when you focus on your body? Then maybe you can dance your fear or go for a walk while you think about it. Is sound or music your favorite way in to your soul? Then take your fear for a ride on the wings of song.
No matter what channel or mode you choose, remember to keep breathing while you feel your fear. Continuous breathing is one of your body’s best tools for integrating emotion. Another tip is to imagine that you’re surfing. Pretend that your fear is a wave in the ocean. Waves form, crest, break, and dissipate naturally, as long as nothing interferes in their movement. Fear is the same way. Let it move through your body like a wave through the ocean. Tremble, shake, scream, cry. Anything goes!
If you want to learn more about fear, find a way to catch one of its waves as it crests in your body. Use your safe channel like a surfboard to keep you afloat. Breathe deeply and feel free to whoop and holler! Practice riding your waves of fear whenever they arise. Eventually, you’ll discover that fear becomes excitement if you can find a creative way to play with it.
Horrible Images and the Flip Side of Fear
In the language of waves, everyday fears are like ripples, and the fear of death is like a tsunami. If you can hang ten on a tsunami, you’re probably a world-class fear surfer. That’s great! Lest you get cocky, though, I’m going to raise the stakes. Here’s a zinger for you: How are you going to die?
This question may cause quite a stir in your guts. I recommend that you take it in small doses. Tune in to your safe channel or mode of expression the way you would tune in to your favorite radio station, to help you feel grounded. Get as comfortable as you can, and consider the possibilities. There are countless ways to die. Some people say that your style of dying reflects your style of living. What would this mean for you?
Invite your deepest fears to come out. Regard them with great tenderness. If you see horrible images of death in your mind’s eye, remember that these images seek your attention, not necessarily your enactment. Many people know their worst fear about dying. What’s yours?
However you answer that question, sit with the image or sound or smell or feeling of that fearsome style of dying. Keep breathing and stay in your safe channel. What is it about this kind of death that frightens you? Let the image or sound or smell or feeling instruct you about your fear. This is not about death per se. It’s about you. Let death teach you about you.
Take as much time as you need to work with the question of how you might die. Next, check out the flip side of your fear by exploring your preferences. What kind of death would you like to have? Do you want to be awake and aware? Would you rather be oblivious? Would you like to die in your sleep?
Do you want to die alone, or with loved ones nearby? Would you like to die at home or in a hospital, in a meadow or in a forest, on a mountaintop or in the desert, on a boat or in a plane? What time of day or night would you like to die?
Details, Details, Details
After you die, how would you like your body to be cared for, and by whom? Do you know your legal rights in regard to the disposition of your body after death? Do you want to be buried or cremated? Would you like a funeral, memorial service, or some kind of celebration in your honor? If so, what would it be like? Have you informed your family and friends about the details of your plans, and put everything in writing?
Have you completed all the other paperwork for your death? Do you have a will? Have you formulated a Durable Power of Attorney, so someone can act in your behalf in case of incapacitation before you die? Do you have a Living Will in place, so your loved ones don’t have to guess what you want if you’re physically or mentally unable to state your preferences in regard to resuscitation or life support?
If you haven’t made these preparations, what’s stopping you? Do you think there will always be time for that later? Do you think it’s your family’s job to handle those responsibilities? Would you prefer to avoid thinking about death altogether? Do you believe that preparing for death will make it come sooner?
Death in Your Face
To complete this essay, I’d like to suggest one more exercise for working with death. For this exercise, I’ll ask you to consider imminent death in order to get clearer about your life.
To begin, imagine that you’re going to die in five years. Would you change anything in your life? Is there anything you would do differently in your relationships? Would you let go of any relationships? Would you spend more or less time with certain people? How about time with yourself? Would you spend more time alone?
How would you treat your present livelihood? Would you stop working? How do you feel about your career? Would you do something entirely different or start your own business?
Would you push harder, slow down, or maintain the status quo? Think about your personal habits. Would you do something about those pesky addictions? Would you go further into them, since you’re going to die anyway?
How about your so-called vices? Would you jettison them, so you’d have more energy for the life you have left? Would you eat more, eat less, or eat differently? How about sex? Would you be more sexually active or less? Would you find a way to live out your secret fantasies?
If you had five years until death, would you live more outrageously? Would you take more risks? Would you dress more wildly, be more outspoken, show off your talents? What about your creative pursuits? Would you make more time for them? Would you change your politics, become an activist, or fight for some cause? Or would you drop out, hide out, or succumb to despair?
Would your interest in the material world intensify or fall away? Do you think you would accumulate more possessions or let go of more stuff? Would you become more hedonistic or more ascetic? Would your passions take you deeper into the pleasures of the flesh, the contemplations of the mind, the ecstasies of the spirit, or all three?
As you explore your answers to these questions, notice any other questions that arise. Get them all out on the table. Go for it! Milk your death for all it’s worth. It may be the best adviser you’ll ever have. Death always tells the truth, calls you on your bullshit, and forces you to pay attention to what’s truly important.
When you’re ready to up the ante again, go back to the beginning of this section, where it says, “Death in Your Face.” This time, answer the same questions as if you have one year to live. When you’re done with that, start again, imagining that you have only six months to live.
Finally, ask yourself the big question. If you were going to die tomorrow, how would you live today? How would it feel to have only one day left? If you’re going to die tomorrow, is there any unfinished business you need to complete? If so, why not do it right now?
Right now may be all you have. Who knows? Death is always around, waiting. Will you be ready when it comes to tap you on the shoulder?
This article is from a series on death originally published by The New Times (1998-99).
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).