Death is all around us this year. We need tools to help.
By Mark Wilson
It’s been a year of loss. But even seeing the devastation of COVID-19 hasn’t made it any easier to talk about death—and specifically, the possibility of our own deaths and deaths of those we love. Of course, ignoring death doesn’t make its inevitability any less real, during this year or any other.
Life Support is a new website from the London creative studio The Liminal Space, funded by the U.K. government. It’s a resource that proclaims, “Talking about dying won’t make it happen.” And with that premise as a baseline, it lets you explore topics about death and dying from the perspectives of experts, like palliative care doctors and social workers.
The design appears nebulous at first glance, with words floating in hand-drawn bubbles, which pulsate like the rhythm of your own breathing. But looks can be deceiving. What’s really lurking inside this casual space is a sharp curriculum built to answer your lingering questions about death.
As you scroll through the interface, the site offers several potential paths of thought that are probably familiar to most of us, like, “I’m scared to have a painful death” and “I don’t know if I should talk to my child about death.” When you find a question to explore, you swipe for more. That’s when experts come in. Some of their answers appear in blocks of text. Others are actually recorded, with audio you can play back. You might think the audio is a gimmick or unnecessary panache. In fact, I found it quite affecting to hear a doctor offering her own thoughts and advice about death aloud; it creates a level of intimacy that printed words can’t quite capture.
Ten or 20 years ago, a resource like this might have been a pamphlet (and indeed, anyone who frequents hospitals knows that pamphlets are still a mainstay to educate patients on topics of all types). But Life Support makes a convincing argument for how giving someone a bit of agency—like choosing our own questions to be answered, or hearing from doctors with our own ears when we’d like to—makes the information easier to digest.
I doubt there’s any quick resource out there that will ever get people completely comfortable talking or thinking about their own mortality. Religion and the arts have already attempted to tackle this topic for millennia. But Life Support is a solid attempt to ease us into the conversation.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
Grief during the holidays is tough enough.
Now, let’s pile on a pandemic for the past year, and you have an even more difficult holiday season.
Being isolated and disconnected from our usual support systems has been a great hardship for many—most certainly for those who have lost a loved one. As the holidays approach, those who are grieving find themselves further burdened by even more unknowns.
Here are some suggestions and perspectives to consider for this holiday season if you are grieving or if you know someone who is grieving.
A Holiday in a box
If you can’t get together with loved ones because you are not traveling or they are not traveling, put together a “Thanksgiving in a box” or “Christmas in a box” or “Chanukah in a box” or “Kwanza in a box” or “(insert your holiday) in a box.” Let this serve as a sort of care package with more than just gifts. Include things like games, puzzles, poems, books, sweets, and other things that you may have shared if you were together.
If you choose to be alone this holiday (which is perfectly fine), opt for a TV dinner or preprepared meal. Many are tasty and include the traditional holiday foods. This also reduces stress in prep and cleanup. Or have your meal delivered. So many stores and restaurants are increasing their deliveries and offering yummy options for the holidays.
Forgo the “have-tos”
Often, the holidays are propelled by the traditions we have, which in and of themselves are not bad. However, if you don’t feel like putting up a tree or lights, or making certain foods, even though you have done that for years with your deceased family member, there is no obligation to do so. Sometimes other family members may be challenged by this; kids may want the traditions to be the same (even if they aren’t going to be around this year). The only obligation you have is to yourself. Do what you want to do this year.
Listen to your wants
If you want a smaller scale (or larger scale) decorated home this year, that’s fine. One woman I know vowed not to have any decorations this year. She and her deceased husband normally put out lots of decorations, but she didn’t have the energy for that now. However, when she found herself at a local big-box store, she was inspired to buy lights. She heard within herself, “Bring light in this year.” At another store, she was drawn to a small living tree, which she plans to plant in her garden after the holiday. She listened to herself. Even though she had thought she wasn’t going to decorate at all, that inner voice offered something different and something meaningful for her this year.
Conserve your energy
What can you make happen with the energy, time, and resources you have? And what is just not possible? The holidays often compel us to extend ourselves beyond our means, both financially and energetically. This could fit into the “have-tos” section as well. Gifts, especially, are not the purpose of the holidays—connection is. If you don’t have the energy and time, ask yourself what matters to you now and how can you do what matters with what you have? This is a question many who are grieving ask daily: What matters to me now?
Focus on the long-term
This year, connecting and being together means something different. If we are not with the people we want to be with now because we don’t live together, it is advised to remain separated. Especially for those who are older or already compromised in some way, don’t risk the unknown and long-term effects of this illness for short-term experience. The most serious long-term effects are hospitalization and death. Conserve your energy and time by connecting virtually. If you live in a warmer climate, you may be able to gather outside. Again, take the proper precautions. Remember that in the long-term, we will be able to be together again. Someone said, “A large gathering this holiday is not worth a small funeral later.”
Allow yourself to change your mind
Even if you want to do something with others, it’s okay to change your mind, even at the last minute. It is helpful to prepare others for this too. Tell them, “I need to warn you that I may need to change my mind, depending on how I feel.” People who know you and know your situation will understand. This also applies to events you may sign up for online. When you register for an event, check the refund policies.
Sit this one out
Some who are grieving don’t want to be a part of anything related to the holidays this year. This is just fine. While some people (even some close to you) may feel this is not a good thing, you have to decide what is right for you. Sitting out this holiday doesn’t mean you will never celebrate again. It just means for right now, you need to be with you, figure out what you want, watch or listen to what you want, eat the food you want, cry when you need, sleep when you need, and talk to who you want to (or not). Remember, you are the boss of you.
Celebrate when you can
For some, celebrating on the actual holiday is not possible or even desired. Some folks gather (even virtually) before the holiday or after it. One person said they celebrate the holidays in the summer when everyone can make it. It’s too late for that this year, but maybe you’ll choose that next year, after we, hopefully, can gather again. Getting together in the summer will allow for an even sweeter celebration.
As we go into the darkest time of the year, our natural inclination is to hibernate. For those who are grieving, this can be a greater pull. With the holidays being so different than they ever have been, it seems like we have an even better reason to pull inward. We can shift our focus from outside ourselves to within ourselves, from doing to being—being with ourselves, being with others (mostly virtually), and being with what is, right now.
Be in the present
This year, we have experienced how things can change day-to-day. Being present for the experiences right now will support you in your grief. Being present to how you feel can help you to make choices about what you want and how you want your life to be. Worrying about what is out of your control expends energy that could otherwise be used for what you can control. Being present allows you to ask, “What is in my control now?” When we discover what is in our control, we find we have more choices. When we focus on what is out of our control, we find fewer choices and feel more helpless.
If you need additional assistance as you are grieving in this time, there are many folks who can help and support you. Local hospice organizations often have resources, especially during the holidays. There are many websites that offer written, video, and even live/Zoom events with information and support. If you find yourself struggling and need immediate assistance, call 911 or your local emergency mental health services for support.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
7 ways to manage death anxiety
A ‘healthy’ fear of death is normal – but what happens when it tips into full-blown anxiety? Lisa Salmon seeks some expert advice
WHILE it’s natural for all of us to be afraid of death, particularly right now with the backdrop of a global pandemic, for some, death anxiety – or thanatophobia – can become a real problem.
“Most people will experience death anxiety at some time in their lives,” says clinical psychologist Dr Anna Janssen (drannajanssen.co.uk), who specialises in the care of people with cancer and terminal illness. “Some have a way of dealing with it which causes them less anxiety, perhaps through their culture or religion or their own ideas about death.
“There’s nothing unusual about being apprehensive about death, and worrying about it a bit, but those worries become more clinically concerning if the anxiety starts to have an impact on day-to-day functioning. When it starts to dictate much of how you live, and is to the detriment of other meaningful things or your wellbeing, it’s more concerning.”
Grief counsellor and funeral director Lianna Champ (champfunerals.com), author of How To Grieve Like A Champ (RedDoor Publishing, £9.99), adds: “The current pandemic has made us think of death – having deaths reported daily in the news can make our anxiety external, giving us a sense of panic.
“Having a fear of death is quite normal and stems from our natural instinct for survival. But what happens when an irrational fear of death begins to seep into our thoughts and takes over our rational thinking? Death anxiety is a very real concern for some, affecting their day-to-day functioning, and while we can’t change what is, we can change how we feel about it.”
Here, Janssen and Champ suggest seven ways to manage death anxiety…
1. Acknowledge your feelings
Don’t try to ignore your feelings about death – talk, think and reflect on them in a safe space, maybe even in therapy, suggests Janssen. “You can look at what your thoughts and feelings really are and get some coherence, so you feel less overwhelmed by how you feel,” she says. “Understanding what you’re thinking and feeling is sometimes a direct route to coping.”
Champ says: “Acknowledge the effect the anxiety has on your life physically and emotionally. Once we acknowledge that we may be engaging in habits or thoughts that aren’t good for us, we can begin to take steps to change them.”
She suggests writing down honestly what you’re feeling, and thinking about events in your past that may be linked to the anxiety. By doing this, you might be able to identify what was emotionally unfinished about the linked event, which might help.
2. Identify the trigger
Champ suggests asking yourself about all the things that make you anxious about death. Is it missing out on being with your loved ones – even though they’ll eventually all die too? Being in a black nothingness (which you probably won’t be aware of)? Or just the not knowing what happens? “If we understand why we’re feeling the way we do, we can take back control,” she says.
3. Limit your news consumption
Champ advises people who have death anxiety not to read or listen to the news too much. “Keep in mind that the media can hold a tragic event in the news for ages,” she says. “Yes, we see disasters, but we can also see many good and great things happening. Everything needs balance.”
Janssen adds: “The fear of death fluctuates in different people’s lives and may be triggered by an experience of a difficult death, or things people may see or hear about death that add uncertainty, or make the potential of death less deniable.”
4. Share your thoughts
Giving a voice to your feelings can help put worries into perspective, says Champ, who suggests: “Find someone who won’t try to ‘fix’ you or change how you feel, but can give you the tools to work it out yourself. If you can’t think of someone you can trust, reach out to a professional.”
Janssen adds: “It can just be about being heard and feeling less stigmatised. Very often, we don’t talk about death or how worried we are about it, so sometimes just having a relationship where someone can bear witness to your feelings about death can be enough. Sometimes knowing you’re not the only one who feels like this can be helpful.”
5. Remember some anxiety about death can be good
“Our survival instinct is driven by the fear of what might end our lives, so we’ll all have an undercurrent of fear of death, and that’s no bad thing because it’s how we survive,” Janssen stresses.
Champ adds: “A ‘healthy’ fear of death can make us change our beliefs and behaviours for the better. An awareness that we aren’t immortal can make us better people too, as it can make us think about how we’d like to be remembered.”
6. Learn to accept it
Through her work, Janssen says she sees people facing death, or who’ve lost someone to illness, and they readily talk about it. “I also see people who speak about their acceptance of death,” she says. “Some people are very much able to accept their life is ending and they feel ready for that ending, and that’s often linked to what they think death is and what they think will happen next.
“Some are very clear this is not the end of everything, so the meaning attached to death isn’t one of threat. They’re comfortable with it, and think they’re going to a safe place and to meet people that have already passed away. It’s really about the meaning we attach to death.”
Champ adds: “By really grasping that dying is an inescapable truth, we can live a better life. We really can live each day as if it’s our last.”
7. Seek help if necessary
If, after trying to tackle your anxiety, you’re still feeling overwhelmed and thinking excessively about death, seek professional help, advises Champ.
Janssen suggests: “If you have trauma that reminds you of how unsafe we are in this world, you can come through it with specialist therapy.”
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
A Boston Globe-Suffolk University poll late last year shows that, for the most part, Massachusetts residents share widespread agreement on issues related to the difficult subject of death.
They say society would be better off if end-of-life issues were discussed more openly and believe terminally ill patients should have more options to choose when and how to die. A sizable majority say they would prefer to die at home, and many men and women have first-hand experience with hospice, according to the poll of some 500 residents across the state.
But some major — and subtle — differences emerged along racial, education, and gender lines, a sign that physicians must address cultural attitudes and life experiences, not just medical options, to reduce inequities in end-stage medical care. The poll showed differences in the types of diseases people most dread, how religion affects views on death, and when to stop aggressive treatment at the end of life.
For example, the survey found that Black and Hispanic people are more likely than white and Asian people to say religion and spiritual beliefs guide their medical end-of-life wishes. And it found that Black people more often want to continue treatment for an incurable, debilitating disease than other groups, likely reflecting longstanding fears of under-treatment due to a history of discrimination.
The poll also found women were more likely than men to believe greater public discussion about death is a good thing and have more religious and spiritual beliefs guiding their medical decisions at the end of life. Women were also somewhat more likely to believe in the afterlife.
Differences among groups also emerged on what life-threatening disease they most feared. Black and Hispanic people identified cancer above all, while white and Asian respondents identified Alzheimer’s and dementia as the condition they most dreaded. Similar differences were found along educational lines.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
— by a gay man who’s lived through one before
From the number of complaints I’m hearing of pandemic fatigue and the widespread resistance to simple precautionary measures such as wearing a mask at the grocery store, it’s clear to me that many people don’t fully appreciate what the gay community has been dealing with for the past 40 years and don’t understand how we survived the AIDS epidemic.
At the risk of over-sharing, here’s a snapshot of what it was like to have come of age in the midst of a sexually transmitted and deadly virus.
We learned how to protect ourselves and one another by practising safer sex. We started using condoms, for which gay men had previously had no use.
And we did so not just for a few short months, but for decades.
Over the years I’ve had boyfriends and lovers and one-night-stands with men whose names I’ve long since forgotten, and I used condoms with all of them.
I had casual sex with strangers in bathhouses and in the backrooms of leather bars and I used condoms. I had sex in parks and parked cars and I used condoms.
I had sex when I was sober and I had sex when I was too drunk to stand up or even see straight, and nonetheless I somehow managed to use condoms.
I had sex with men who warned me that they were HIV-positive and with men who assured me that they were HIV-negative, and in either case I used condoms. I worked on the assumption that anyone and everyone might be infected – myself included – and I used condoms.
“We did this because we knew that unprotected sex could be fatal”
I had sex with the same man hundreds of times over the course of a 20-year relationship and we used condoms every single time, except for a very brief attempt at monogamy after 15 long years of endlessly discussing trust and testing and accountability, after which we decided that it would be easier and less stressful not to talk about it anymore and to just go back to using the damn condoms.
Occasionally condoms broke or came off, or I slipped up and put myself at risk, after which I lived in a state of anxiety for up to six months waiting for reliable antibody test results.
Then I renewed my promise to myself to be more careful, to do better.
We did this because we knew that unprotected sex could be fatal. We did this as we mourned and buried friends and co-workers and ex-lovers and attended more funerals than any young person should ever have to.
Whenever I needed a reminder of the importance of safer sex, all I had to do was look at the photograph that my older lover kept taped to his fridge, of a dozen of his closest friends at a birthday party in the early ‘80s. All of them so young, all of them so handsome. All of them dead by the time we met.
An entire generation of vibrant, talented men cut down in their prime, caught off guard by an emerging disease, wiped out by an invisible enemy.
‘We educated ourselves and the community’
We suffered from survivor guilt, wondering how and why we survived when so many had perished. We experienced anticipatory grief, wondering which of us would be next. At times we were nearly paralyzed with fear. Still we soldiered on.
We transformed our fear and grief into action by volunteering and fundraising. For years on end, every social event and drag show and gay bingo night involved selling raffle tickets and passing a bucket to scrape together donations.
We delivered meals to people too weak to cook for themselves and we visited the dying in hospices and palliative care wards and we stitched memorial quilts to commemorate those we’d lost.
We organized an annual AIDS Walk to support people living with HIV and we marched in the annual Pride Parade to remind ourselves and the world that we were still here and that we deserved the same rights as everyone else.
We educated ourselves and the community. My colleagues and I attended national and international AIDS conferences and created educational materials and conducted sexual health workshops. I coordinated a small group of dedicated volunteers who distributed literally millions of free condoms wherever men met for sex.
We were on a mission: every location and every interaction was another opportunity to promote HIV prevention.
“We trusted doctors and scientists”
We made weekly rounds of smoky bars with a skateboarding drag queen dressed as a nun and we sat in steamy bathhouses and talked to naked strangers about their sexual activities.
Late at night after the bars closed we cruised public sex environments with a bagful of condoms and a fistful of referral cards. We educated closeted men cheating on their wives and girlfriends, referring them to anonymous HIV testing sites and confidential counseling services.
We distributed condoms and clean needles to street kids and hustlers and transgender sex workers and injection drug users, and we collected untold thousands of used syringes for safe disposal.
We spoke to students of all ages and to young offenders in juvenile detention and we sat in healing circles in maximum-security penitentiaries with convicted rapists and murderers and encouraged them to keep each other safe.
We trusted doctors and scientists, even as the findings and recommendations changed. For years we used condoms and lubricants containing Nonoxynol-9 because health authorities told us that it might help prevent the spread of HIV, and then we stopped using it when studies showed that it actually increased the risk of infection.
We didn’t freak out or give up or give in to conspiracy theories and stop trusting science; instead we adjusted our behaviour as new and sometimes contradictory data became available.
‘To stay safe, to stay strong’
We told each other to stay safe, to stay strong. We put up posters encouraging everyone to “Be Here for the Cure.” Those of us with HIV took highly toxic pharmaceuticals for years and willingly participated in clinical drug trials until more effective and less damaging antiretroviral therapies eventually transformed HIV into a manageable illness.
Those of us who were as yet uninfected signed up for Phase III vaccine trials, allowing multinational pharmaceutical companies to inject us with experimental vaccine candidates, putting our bodies at risk for the greater good.
We told each other to be patient, that an effective vaccine would be available within a few years, never imagining that decades later the world would still be waiting.
We did all of this with insufficient government funding, with insufficient media attention and with insufficient support from our families of origin, while politicians largely ignored our plight and religious leaders preached that we got what we deserved and hateful bigots picketed our funerals with signs saying “God Hates Fags” and most people were simply oblivious to what was happening because it wasn’t happening to them.
“Normal wasn’t what we wanted; we wanted things to be better“
We didn’t whine about the inconvenience the virus was causing. We didn’t demand that the government tell us exactly how much longer the pandemic would last, or complain that we just wanted everything to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t what we wanted; we wanted things to be better.
We took to the streets to demand civil rights and adequate research funding and more effective treatment options, not to demand that hairdressers and nail salons re-open.
I’m 53 years old and I have been successfully managing to avoid contracting and spreading a potentially deadly virus not just for the past few months, but for my entire adult life.
I first heard about AIDS when I was an adolescent, back when it was tentatively known as GRID: Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. I saw a small story in the local newspaper about gay men in San Francisco and New York dying from a mysterious new illness, and even though I had never been to San Francisco or New York and even though I was too young to have had sex and had no one to talk to about being gay, I thought to myself: I better pay attention to this. I better take this seriously. Or it might kill me.
“I took it seriously”
I’ve done things in my life of which I’m not proud, but this is not one of them: I paid attention. I took it seriously. I didn’t let it kill me. Nor did I let it stop me from having an active and adventurous sex life, but I took precautions. I stayed safe, I stayed strong.
I lived to tell the tale.
So please: wear a mask in public, especially indoors. Avoid crowds and wash your hands frequently. Listen to public health officials. Trust the science and follow the recommendations, even as they might change.
This is the new normal; it might continue for years. Prepare yourself to be in this for the long-haul. Ignore the risks at your peril, or learn from the experience of the gay community in how to effectively respond to a pandemic with no end in sight: do your small part, protect yourself and take care of each other, work together for the common good. Stay safe. Stay strong.
Adapt and survive.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
“Losing both your parents doesn’t get any easier”
There are painful and sometimes unexpected feelings associated with losing both parents in adulthood.
By Caron Kemp
If it’s possible to have a good death, that’s how I’d describe my mum’s. Within the unlikely surroundings of a quietly attentive intensive care unit, she went peacefully, flanked by her family. It was a mere five months after her cancer diagnosis and none of us believed that the Large B-Cell Lymphoma coursing through her blood, lungs and chest would beat her. But the chemotherapy regime was gruelling, rendering her weak and even more ill at every dose and the final bout of pneumonia proved too much.
I was just 33 and juggling three young children of my own, yet as I sat vigil at her bedside in her final hours, all I wanted was to be scooped up into the arms that once cradled me, to be looked after.
A mummy’s girl to my core, I looked like her, shared many of her quirks and, in her latter years, doted on her as she endured more than her fair share of poor health. Yes, we bickered and, yes, she drove me mad regularly – but my mum was my biggest cheerleader. Even when I failed my driving test over and over again, or felt like I was falling apart at university, she was on hand to remind me of my worth.
Her death hit me hard. However long we’d lived with the realities of hospital visits and hushed conversations, living without her wasn’t an option. The funeral passed in a daze and once everyone else’s world carried on turning, I was left fumbling in the dark for a way to carry on.
Stoic to the end – I’ll never forget the final thumbs-up sign my mum gave as she was put into an induced coma – here was my lead. She never lamented her situation, and neither would I. Her greatest riches in life were her family and I knew all she’d want was for myself and my sister to rally around my dad; her soulmate of more than 35 years, himself bereft and broken-hearted.
“I was left fumbling in the dark for a way to carry on”
So, I poured all my energy into him. I sobbed until I physically hurt, I sought her out in the feathers that landed at my feet, and I got my first tattoo in a big ‘screw you’ to the world. But my dad gave me purpose. Thus, when he was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer exactly two years after my mum died, the cruelty of the situation wasn’t lost on me.
In the seven months that followed, I watched the wisest man I knew become reduced to a shadow of himself; frail, dependant and scared. In the last four weeks – played out from a small, clinical hospital room – life existed in a vacuum, where fear was palpable.
My dad’s death was not a good one. Riddled too with pneumonia and sepsis, I was woken in the middle of the night to news that he’d had a heart attack. He died before we could get to him. It was Mother’s Day.
It was my sister who first helped me try on the title of ‘orphan’ for size. But a fully-fledged adult, juggling a career and motherhood, I felt like the proverbial square peg. Yet here I was, without the greatest anchor in my life, and somehow the shoe began to fit.
Losing both parents is not the same as losing one, twice over. When my dad died, I didn’t just lose him. I lost my identity as someone’s daughter, I lost the family and friends only connected to me through them, and I lost anything standing in the pecking order between me and my own demise.
Plus, without my dad to anaesthetise my pain, I found the wound of my mum’s death finally laid bare too. It was all too much and for weeks I couldn’t muster a tear; numb to the earthquake that had ruptured my world as I knew it.
Life since has been punctuated with plenty of difficult days, but my first birthday without either parent was the toughest yet. However hard it was receiving a card signed solely from my dad, receiving nothing stung so much more. I spent the day at home in my pyjamas, because some things can’t be fixed and at times it’s ok to feel crushed.
Before my dad died, I’d always found camaraderie in others walking a similar path. But this was unchartered territory and it was a very lonely place to be. People tried to empathise. Like the friend of my dad’s – himself in his 70s – who told me he ‘knew exactly how I felt’ having recently lost his second parent. Grief is not a competition, but I can tell you – comparing two completely different experiences hurts.
“There are so many questions that now have no answer and so much I wish I could still weave into our family tapestry”
As someone who struggles with vulnerability, being honest about my feelings is a constant work in progress, yet opening up to the rare few individuals who don’t wipe away my tears, who hear what I say and what I don’t and who share my newfound dark and often inappropriate sense of humour, has been fantastically medicinal.
There are so many questions that now have no answer and so much I wish I could still weave into our family tapestry. But no one leads a perfectly curated life; it’s what we do with our pain that makes the difference.
Losing my parents has been an incalculable, lasting blow, but it’s also been surprisingly freeing. Without anyone to be my guide, I’ve emerged into a new stage of adulthood; finding out who my truest, deepest self is, what serves me well and what really matters. At times it’s been ugly, I’ve been very angry and I’ve lost and found many relationships along the way.
I am also, though, acutely aware of how short and precious life is and I’m more motivated than ever to live mine fully – with my parents’ values and spirit carried with me in my heart.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
Now is the perfect time to face your fear of mortality. Here’s how.
Nikki Mirghafori has a fantastically unusual career. After getting a PhD in computer science, she’s spent three decades as an artificial intelligence researcher and scientific advisor to tech startups in Silicon Valley. She’s also spent a bunch of time in Myanmar, training with a Buddhist meditation master in the Theravada tradition. Now she teaches Buddhist meditation internationally, alongside her work as a scientist.
One of Mirghafori’s specialties is maranasati, which means mindfulness of death. Mortality might seem like a scary thing to contemplate — in fact, maybe you’re tempted to stop reading this right now — but that’s exactly why I’d say you should keep reading. Death is something we really don’t like to think or talk about, especially in the West. Yet our fear of mortality is what’s driving so much of our anxiety, especially during this pandemic.
Maybe it’s the prospect of your own mortality that scares you. Or maybe you’re like me, and thinking about the mortality of the people you love is really what’s hard to wrestle with.
Either way, I think now is actually a great time to face that fear, to get on intimate terms with it, so that we can learn how to reduce the suffering it brings into our lives.
I recently spoke with Mirghafori for Future Perfect’s limited-series podcast The Way Through, which is all about mining the world’s rich philosophical and spiritual traditions for guidance that can help us through these challenging times.
In our conversation, Mirghafori outlined the benefits of contemplating our mortality. She then walked me through some specific practices for developing mindfulness of death and working through the fear that can come up around that. Some of them are simple, like reciting a few key sentences each morning, and some of them are more … shall we say… intense.
I think they’re all fascinating ways that Buddhists have generated over the centuries to come to terms with the prospect of death rather than trying to escape it.
You can hear our full conversation in the podcast here. A partial transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.
You’ve worked in Silicon Valley and you still live near there, so I’m sure you’ve encountered the desire in certain tech circles to live forever. There are biohackers who are taking dozens of supplements every day. Some are getting young blood transfusions, trying to put young people’s blood in their veins to live longer. Some are having their bodies or brains preserved in liquid nitrogen, doing cryopreservation so they can be brought back to life one day. What is your feeling about all these efforts?
It’s the quest for immortality and the denial of death. Part of it is natural. Human beings have done this for as long as we have been conscious of the fact that we are mortal.
A person who really put this well was Ernest Becker, the author of the seminal book The Denial of Death. I’d like to offer this quote from him:
This is the paradox. A human is out of nature and hopelessly in it. We are dual. Up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill marks to prove it. A human is literally split in two. We have an awareness of our own splendid uniqueness in that we stick out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet we go back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.
There is a whole field of research in psychology called terror management theory, which started from the work of Ernest Becker. This theory says that there’s a basic psychological conflict that arises from having, on the one hand, a self-preservation instinct, and on the other hand, that realization that death is inevitable.
This psychological conflict produces terror. And how human beings manage this terror is either by embracing cultural beliefs or symbolic systems as ways to counter this biological reality, or doing these various things — cryogenics, trying to find elixirs of life, taking lots of supplements or whatnot.
It’s nothing new. The ancient Egyptians almost 4,000 years ago, and ancient Chinese almost 2,000 years ago, both believed that death-defying technology was right around the corner. The zeitgeist is not so different. We think we are more advanced, but it comes from the same fear, same denial of death.
It seems like in the West, we really have a bad case of that denial. I think we rarely talk about death or are willing to face up to the reality that we’re going to die. We seem to be wanting to always distract ourselves from it.
You are a Buddhist practitioner and you have a practice that is very much the opposite of that, which is mindfulness of death, or maranasati. You’ve done trainings and led retreats around this subject. But some people might say this is too morbid and depressing to think about. So before we actually delve into the mindfulness of death practices, could you entice us by telling us a few of the benefits of doing them?
First and foremost, what I found for many people, myself included, is that facing the fact that I am not going to live forever really aligns my life with my values.
Most people suffer what’s called the misalignment problem, which is that we don’t quite live according to our values. There was a study that really highlighted this, by a team of scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. They surveyed a group of women and compared how much satisfaction they derived from their daily activities. Among voluntary activities, you’d probably expect that people’s choices would roughly correlate to their satisfaction. You’re choosing to do it, so you’d think that you actually enjoy it.
Guess what? That wasn’t the case. The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship, and meditation than from watching television. But the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching television than engaging in spiritual activities that they actually said they enjoyed more.
This is a misalignment problem. There’s a way we want to spend our time, but we don’t do that because we don’t have the sense that time is short, time is precious. And the way to systematically raise the sense of urgency — Buddhism calls it samvega, spiritual urgency — is to bring the scarcity of time front and center in one’s consciousness: I am going to die. This show is not going to go on forever. This is a party on death row.
So the approach here is to bring to the forefront of our consciousness how precious our time is, by impressing upon our minds how scarce it is. And that helps align our life with our values.
Are there other benefits to practicing mindfulness of death?
The second benefit is to live without fear of death for our own sake. That way, we don’t engage in typical escape activities. And it frees up a lot of psychic energy. We have more peace, more ease in our lives.
The third benefit is to live without fear of death for the sake of our loved ones. We can support others in their dying process. Usually the challenge of supporting a loved one is that we have a sense of grief for losing them, but a lot of that grief is actually that it’s bringing up fear of our own mortality. So if we have made peace with our own mortality, we can be fully present and support them in their process, which can be a huge gift.
My mom passed away two years ago. And for me, having done all of these practices, I could be with her by her deathbed, holding her hand and supporting her so that she could have a peaceful transition. She didn’t have to take care of me so much and console me. She could be at peace and take delight in this mysterious process that we just don’t know what it’s like. It might be beautiful, might be graceful. We don’t know — there might be nothing; there might be something.
Now I feel sufficiently enticed to learn about the actual practices of mindfulness of death. Let’s start with one that seems simple: the Five Daily Reflections, sometimes called the Five Remembrances, that are often recited in Buddhist circles. Would you mind reciting those?
Happy to. These are the Five Daily Reflections that the Buddha suggested people recite every day.
Just like everyone, I am of the nature to age. I have not gone beyond aging.
Just like everyone, I am of the nature to sicken. I have not gone beyond sickness.
Just like everyone, I am subjected to the results of my own actions. I am not free from these karmic effects.
Just like everyone, I am of the nature to die. I have not gone beyond dying.
Just like everyone, all that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.
Allow whatever arises to come up. It’s okay. These contemplations can bring a lot up. So just be with them as much as possible.
I’ve done these reflections before, but every time I do them, I notice that some are much harder for me to absorb than others. The fourth one — I’m of the nature to die — does not terrify me. Maybe that’s weird, but that’s not the one that really scares me. The one that I find impossibly hard is the fifth one. Everyone that I love and everything that I love is of the nature to change and be separated from me.
It’s really the death or the separation from the people I love that I find much harder to face than the death of myself. Because if I’m going to die, you know, then I’ll be gone. There won’t be any me to miss things.
Yes. So appreciate and make space for the one that really touches you.
Also I would say that with the fourth one, making peace with our own death, I’ve done the practice and sometimes I’m like yeah, sure, whatever. And then I’ve really stayed with it, and thought, “This could be my last breath.” When the practice really takes hold and becomes alight with fire, it’s like, “Oh, my God, I am going to die!” It really hits home.
Just to clarify, this is a separate mindfulness of death practice, where you contemplate with every breath, “This could be my last inhale. This could be my last exhale.”
Yes. And to bring the historical context into it: This particular teaching is what’s called maranasati. Marana is death in Pali, the language of the Buddha. Sati is mindfulness. The mindfulness of death sutra, that’s where the Buddha taught it, and it’s actually quite a lovely teaching.
The Buddha comes and asks the monks, “How are you practicing mindfulness of death?” And one of them says, “Well, I think I could die in a fortnight, in a couple weeks.” Another one of them says, “Well, I think I could die in 24 hours.” Or “Well, I could die at the end of this meal.” Or “Well, I could die at the end of this bite of food I’m eating.” And another one says, “Well, I could die at the end of this very breath.”
And the Buddha says, “Those of you who said, two weeks, 24 hours, whatever — you are practicing heedlessly. Those who said right at this breath, you are practicing heedfully, correctly. That is the practice.”
There are ways to really bring the sense of immediacy and urgency to all this. It’s not out of the question that there could be an aneurysm or that a meteor could just hit the Earth in this moment. Use visualizations; be creative.
Another thing I find really helpful is remembering the idea of impermanence. Which, of course, is the theme of our whole conversation — that our whole life is impermanent — and that’s a very central Buddhist teaching. But also any emotion that I’m feeling is impermanent. So if I’m feeling an intense surge of fear as I do a practice, that’s impermanent, too.
Yeah, I love that. When I teach impermanence, there are little impermanences that come and go, and then there is the big impermanence, which is your life! I’m chuckling because this is a case where impermanence is on your side. Impermanence is just a rule of how things run in this world. It’s impersonal. It’s just the way things are. But in our perspective, it’s either working for us or against us.
Can you tell me about another kind of contemplation — the “corpse contemplation” or “charnel ground contemplation”? Charnel grounds are these places where, after people have died, their bodies are left to decay above ground, to rot in the open air. And Buddhist monks would go and observe them up close, right?
Many monks do that, especially in Asia. In order to become more intimate with a sense of mortality, the practice is to go to the charnel ground and to actually see a corpse. And the contemplation is: My body, this alive body, is just like this body that is decaying. It’s in different stages of being a body, of decomposing.
A specific practice in the Buddhist canon is to contemplate a corpse in different stages of decay. This particular practice requires a sense of stability of mind. Do the other ones first. I only teach it on a retreat when there’s a container of safety, holding people and supporting them through it.
I definitely have not yet worked myself up to doing corpse contemplation by looking at images of actual human corpses. But when I go for a walk, whenever I see a dead bird or squirrel or mouse that’s been run over in the road, I actually pause and take a minute to look at it. I’m trying to ease my way into this practice.
Brilliant. Similarly, another informal practice I wanted to share is having a memento mori. Like a little skull, or those bracelets that are all skulls. I just drew on a little Post-It a skull and bones, and posted it on my computer monitor, so I would remember: Life is short. I’m going to die.
I’ve had various memento moris on my desk throughout the years, and I invite people to have them. They don’t have to be sophisticated. On a piece of paper, just write out, “Life is short” or “You are going to die” or “Traveler, tread lightly.” Whatever works for you to keep death in your perspective. And I think it’s good to switch memento moris around so that your mind doesn’t get used to seeing the same thing all the time.
I’m glad you brought this up because I was going to say the corpse contemplation reminds me a lot of that memento mori tradition, which is a centuries-long tradition in Christianity. So many different religious traditions have emphasized the importance of meditating on our death and have devised ways like the memento mori to try to keep forcing the ego to recognize its looming demise.
Yes. And I know that for me, I feel most alive and I feel happiest and I feel most connected with myself, when I’m aware of my death. If it happens for a day or two that it’s not in the forefront for whatever reason, I’m not as bright, as sharp, as alive. So I just love bringing it back. It enlivens me. It supports me to live more fully and hopefully die with more delight and joy and curiosity.
I’m wondering if you can help me with something else. I mentioned earlier that I’m not really scared of my own death so much, but I am scared of the death of the people I love. And especially during the pandemic, I think that’s causing a lot of anxiety for me and probably a lot of others. We’re scared about the potential death of our grandparents, our parents, our friends. Is there a way to free ourselves of the overwhelming fear of their death?
Grief is a natural part of the process. However, it is complicated by our own seen and unseen fear of death. So I invite you to actually work with the practice of making peace with your own death. That’s what’s underlying it. Even if you think you’re not afraid of your own death, you probably are.
When people are really at peace with their own passing, there is a different perspective. There’s a different way of being with the fear or sadness of losing others. There is still a pain of loss, but it shifts.
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