Death is one of only two certainties we experience in life.
But talking about death still remains largely a taboo.
It would seem that for such an important life experience, most of us would want to have a ‘good’ one. But what does that mean?
Is there even such a thing as a good death?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about death. Perhaps this stems from generations of mothers that have experienced their fair share of loss. Mothers lost too soon and mothers burying children. Or, maybe it is the result of my own experiences of having to make soul wrenching decisions that would end my loved ones lives. It is also conceivable that the circumstances surrounding my birth have shaped my views of death. Leading me to feel as though I have already escaped ‘death’ before birth. What I could not escape, however, were my mother’s relentless fears of my death. Ironically, living under the shadow of her fears slowly chipped away many of my fears of dying.
These experiences have given me the opportunity to step back, ponder, and question my beliefs around this taboo subject and what a good death means to me. As always, take what works for you, leave what doesn’t.
No one knows for sure
There are many theories about where we go when we die. Often the theories are accepted as true, becoming a belief. These beliefs can sometimes give rise to our own fears about dying. Particularly, the fear of an unknown afterlife, if we believe there is one. However, stepping back for a moment and looking at death with a fresh lens, we might see that absolutely no one knows for sure what happens to us when we die or where we ‘go.’
This does not mean we have to let go of our beliefs. It simply means we have a choice. We can choose to hold our beliefs sacred and use them as guiding principles for how we live our lives. Equally, we have a choice to let go of our fears caused by those beliefs. One way to do this might be keeping an open mind. That is, remaining open to the possibility that we might have been completely wrong in the end.
Death is for the living
The most profound realization I’ve made is that the notion of death is for the living. As there is no way to know for certain what happens to us when we die, everything we imagine about death is from the perspective, and limited awareness, of the living. If we were to imagine two people standing on either side of a river, dying would represent our crossing the river to get to the other side. While this is an easy way to think about it, as living beings, our perception is limited. We are only ever able to see what happens on our side of the river. This means everything we think we know about death is imagined, including the river and the other side!
Our notions of death and dying—from what happens to us when we die, where we ‘go,’ how our actions might influence where we ‘go,’ to our fears about dying—are fundamentally determined by what we experience from being alive. From this perspective then, death can provide us with a roadmap for how we choose to live. Death can also give our lives meaning and purpose. Simply knowing that our time is limited may make our time living more precious.
Sharing in the cycle of life
The notion of death has always sat hand-in-hand with life in my family. Maybe this is because my great-grandmother lost her mother at a young age. Or that the nature of our family’s rugged, sometimes harsh lives instilled in us a natural sense of our own mortality. I can’t be sure. I like to think it was simply that we were an extremely close family, leaving little left unsaid.
From mother to daughter four generations long, we not only passed down life, but also our instructions for death, strengthening our bonds of love. Each giving birth to hope and comforting the other when needed most. My grandmother was there for her mother when the time came and knew how to support her in her last days. The same way my mother and I were there for her. Twenty years later, I shared this experience with my daughter, holding my mother’s hands as we cherished her last moments.
In sharing both our hopes and fears, a sacred vow was forged between mother and daughter. The vow was simple: to be there when the time comes. Each endeavoring to hold our mothers hand, make the tough the decisions, and shower them with the same love they have showered upon us when entering the world. In this way, mother and daughter completed the cycle of life and passed on this sacred knowledge to the next generation. My hope is that my daughter and granddaughters (or grandsons!) will be there for me, holding my hand, as me and my mothers have done before.
Each day holds an opportunity
Treading carefully, I accept that not all deaths may be considered ‘good.’ In some cases it can be difficult, or even impossible, to think of our loved ones passing in these terms—especially when we have lost a child or a loved one to violence. My intention is not to minimize, or in any way diminish, the pain suffered by those who may have experienced these losses.
Often the emphasis surrounding death is placed on how fully we have lived. Or, how well we have loved. Some may question the decisions we made and the accomplishments that we (or our loved ones) have achieved. From my experiences, death is not the time to judge, evaluate, or measure. As we approach those last moments, it is about fully accepting ourselves and our loved for who they are and holding a loving space for them in their last moments.
This to me is the essence of a good death.
Digging deeper, we may find that everyday we are alive holds an opportunity to have a good death. We may also recognize that because death is a notion for those left behind, it may be considered an exchange between a giver and receiver. Whereby, each of us takes responsibility to say and do what has to be said and done before the time comes.
A good death is sown while we are alive. So the seeds of our treasured memories will grow (and live on) in the hearts of those we love.
To me this means . . .
Loving ourselves and taking the opportunities to tell our loved ones how much they mean to us.
Being honest with ourselves and our loved ones about our hopes and fears, with a quiet acceptance that our time here is limited.
Providing comfort, without judgement. A loving space to reflect on those things we will forever cherish.
Agreeing to the important decisions before the time comes. Thus, lifting the heavy burden from our loved ones shoulders, should they have to make them for us.
Holding ourselves accountable by taking care of financial matters, so they are not left behind to our loved ones.
Lastly, holding our loved ones hand and showering them with love as they draw their last breath.
I have been truly blessed that my mother, her mother, and her mother before, have lived in this way.
Today, on the 2nd anniversary of my mother’s passing, my hope is that she will be waiting for me on the other side of the river, ready to lend me her hand, when my time comes.