This is the first time I have spent long stretches imagining my own death. Usually, the death pass is a perfect thirty-yard spiral. This death daydream takes place in a blinding blizzard in a game that I lose. In this one, I imagine being sick for a while and then developing a hacking cough and then getting pneumonia and then dying. This is an awful death simulation.
I feel like I am O.K. with some versions of my own death. Like, maybe I go for a nice long walk, then I have dinner with my wife and daughter, maybe a phone call with an old college friend, and then a meteor hits the earth. Sign me up for that death. Or maybe this: I take a guitar lesson with Paul Simon. He teaches me “The Boxer” and then, for no justifiable reason, I play the song perfectly—like, better than Simon & Garfunkel in Central Park in ’81—and after I play the final note Paul looks over at me and says, “That was really good, Mike.” And then the building explodes. So obviously, in that scenario, we both die instantly and the headline reads, “Paul Simon and Unknown Comedian Die After Perfect Jam Session.”
There is one last death scenario I’d be O.K. with. To recap, so far it’s:
1. Dinner with my family and then a meteor.
2. Simon & Birbiglia followed by explosion.
The third and final death scenario I’m O.K. with is my wife and daughter and I go to the beach and have a bonfire, which is prepared by bonfire professionals who make sure it’s not too hot but perfect for s’mores. And we make s’mores—no, wait, that’s after we make a bonfire pizza, with dough flown in from Frank Pepe’s, in New Haven. So we do pizza then s’mores and then my wife leans over to me—privately, because our daughter is only five—and she says, “If anything ever happened to you, I want you to know that we would be O.K. and that you’ve given us more than we could hope for in three lifetimes. So, God forbid anything happens—we will be fine.”
And then I say, “I love you both.”
And I walk into the water and am eaten by a shark. Quickly. The key there is “quickly.” And the headline reads, “Unknown Comedian Killed by Shark After He Kills with Thousands of Audience Members.”
Those are the ways I’m O.K. dying. But, these days, it’s much grimmer than that. It’s hacking coughs and scorching fevers and ventilators and intubations and people sharing their final words with their families through a bad connection on a cell phone.
So my only remaining hope in this terrible simulation is that, if I find myself in a hospital, hooked up to a ventilator that is about to be taken from me—that I will be aided by an adequate amount of medical delirium to actually believe that the last thing I see is Paul Simon, leaning over to say, “Mike, you played that final note perfectly.”
Some people have recently described the air in New York City as heavy. I don’t think that’s exactly right. The air has a weird crackliness to it. There’s something about living in a place that has experienced so much death in such a short period of time that changes the physics of a place. There is an electricity to the air, a nervousness that seems to permeate everything, As well it should.
As I write this essay 12,199 people have died of coronavirus in my city. The actual numbers are probably higher. Who knows what the real toll is, what with nursing homes refusing to disclose numbers and many people dying without ever getting a test or getting to a hospital? And people are dying here in surreal ways, the way they die in movies. The husband of a friend is found dead in his car. My friend’s father in law is found dead watching television in his house; he had been like that for three days. I know a handful of people who have died., Mostly parents of friends. They are not young, but in a normal world they would have another decade or two. Instead, they have been taken by coronavirus in what seems like a blink of an eye.
And yet, outside my window are flowers, spring in empty Manhattan continues unabated. The flowers don’t care that no one is there to witness them bloom. The streets continue to be empty except for the occasional ambulance. In my neighborhood, the ambulances do this little beeping thing now, not a full siren anymore, and perhaps they don’t need a full siren since there is no traffic. The stores are all closed except a small gourmet food store and a pharmacy which is selling both pandemic supplies (masks, and pulse oximeters) and fancy Manhattanite supplies (expensive candles and skin creams). Life here is both terrifying and oddly mundane. Most of my day is spent inside; occasionally I’ll go for a walk. I see my one friend from six feet away. I watch a lot of television. I write my pieces. My mother and stepfather continue in their apartment alone, 20 blocks away, but I haven’t seen them in five weeks. My in-laws occasionally call in a panic, desperate for us to leave to the city.
But what they don’t understand, what they can never understand is that New York is not a habit; it’s an addiction. To New Yorkers, New York isn’t something you casually use and then abandon when you realize it could be fatal. I always knew New York was fatal it’s just fatal in a slightly different way now. When I grew up here in the 1980’s, I was only mugged once. Most of my friends were mugged multiple times–it was kind of what happened here. Right now, it’s not the crime that kills you. In fact crime in New York is down 22 percent. Right now it’s this mysterious, dangerous virus that kills. But the idea that New York can be dangerous, and bad for your health, that’s always been part of its sometimes explicable charm.
And life here can still feel oddly normal. Sometimes, if I close my eyes, everything can seem for a minute or two, like it was before March. But then there’s the silence — the lack of traffic, the lack of construction, the lack of life– and I remember it’s mid-April and we have been in lockdown for more than a month now.
The feeling here is that things are getting better, that our curve is flattening, I talked to a doctor friend who confirmed this and said cheerfully that they were “no longer going on bed checks and finding dead bodies.” There’s a cautious optimism in New York City; it’s quiet but you can feel it percolating, just under the surface. Yes, things are getting a bit better here, people are no longer dying in their cars as much. Hospitals no longer have lines around the block outside of them.
On Saturday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that 540 people had died the day before due to coronavirus, less than the 630 the day before. A newscaster on NY1 just said, moments ago, that we are “trending in the right direction.” Yes, this is better than previous days but it doesn’t feel better. We’re supposed to be celebrating the fact that fewer people are dying here every day, but a lot of people are still dying every day.
New York is used to tragedy. We New Yorkers have survived AIDS, 9/11 and catastrophic hurricanes. And, yes, we will survive coronavirus. But not without some very profound scars.
We’ve all had dreams. Some people dream vividly and often, some not as often. And there is the problem of forgetting the dream when you wake up, or shortly thereafter. I usually try to make a note to myself right away or when the dream wakes me up. I keep a bedside notebook for ideas, etc. Otherwise they are just forgotten.
And there are many types of dreams — happy and pleasant, wishful thinking, nightmares, anxiety dreams such as being lost, and, most difficult of all, distorted or mixed up dreams with the characters and events all combined and scrambled. There are many types of dream analysis, as well: ways to try to interpret the meaning of dreams. And we also have our own ideas about what a dream means.
But there is a special type of dream in grief, in which your loved one appears as if in life.
This can be very comforting. You are lucky to get one of these once in a while. I’ve had a few over the years and cherish them. They create a happy sensation, even after I wake. One vivid one I had a year or so ago was just a normal scene with my beloved Baheej’s arms around me. That was nice. A blessing. He appears in dreams occasionally but not very often.
There are lots of anxiety dreams in grief. Usually along the lines of being left alone, abandoned or other stressful scenes. Or danger where you can’t save the other. Or you can’t find him or her.
So dreams are a mixed bag. And they are different from “signs,” which are almost always pleasant and encouraging in my experience — and among people who’ve talked to me about signs. They are happenings/messages that serve as communication from lost loved ones, easily recognized by the bereaved, and very comforting.
The problem with signs is most people, unless it’s happened to them, think it’s just a person’s imagination, wishful thinking, or some fantasy because of grief. Or they think the sign is just a coincidence. But I continue to believe signs are a method of communication from the lost loved one. It’s a reassurance that they are still around and watching out for you.
Some people even experience a visual visit from a spirit, but this has never happened to me. It did happen to my sister and a couple of friends. I always hope my dear Baheej may appear someday, but not so far.
A while back, I got an email from a reader who described a sign he and his wife got from the adult son they lost. It was graphic and quite clear to them. How nice.
Last night I was talking with a close friend who had a huge sign from her father-in-law who died a few days ago. She went into the city alone to see a big art exhibit, and felt she was doing it not only because of her personal interest, but also in memory of her father-in-law, who loved art and would have enjoyed this exhibit.
Well, as she was walking around the gallery, there was a couple near her. From the back, the man looked like her father-in-law and seemed to be dressed like him. He turned around and looked just like him, but 10 years younger. He had on the same clothing, shirt and vest, of the same brand and style her father-in-law always wore.
My friend was surprised so she approached the couple and told them. They said to her, “Of course, he’s probably here with you now.” Wow. So I immediately said, “That’s a sign.”
This is how it happens, totally unexpected but clear as a bell.
My friend told me, “I think you have to be very open to recognize these signs when they happen.” I agree with her.
I’ve written about signs with lots of examples in earlier columns, so won’t repeat those. But here are a couple more examples:
Once I was at a swap shop in New Hampshire and I picked up (free) two darling flower watercolor drawings. Each is about 8 inches square, with matching frames. They now hanging in my dining room. One is the July water lily. It’s my husband Baheej’s favorite flower and his birthday month. The other is the December rose, my father’s birthday month. The two most important men in my life. My brother Nic had died shortly before. I expect to find the Nic’s April flower one of these days — my brother’s birthday month, and it’s also my mother’s.
Another sign is a feather. It’s widely thought to be a sign from a lost child or infant and, I think, could also be from someone young in spirit. Baheej was one of the latter; he had a really young joy of life. Well, in the first month or two after his death, I found many feathers around the yard, on the patio, even one in the house. My cats never go outside, so it wasn’t them. And I don’t have any pet birds.
I’ve only found one feather ever since. However, a friend who lost an infant found many, many feathers. Signs as far as I’m concerned.
So the point is: There are some extrasensory phenomena that happen in grief, chief among them dreams and signs. I think everyone agrees we all have dreams. So if you are lucky enough to have pleasant dreams of your lost loved one, whether spouse, partner, friend, child, parent or other, you are very fortunate.
Life is so complicated. And so is death. We just need to be as open as possible. Comfort comes in many forms.
Before this novel coronavirus ever reached American shores, I heard dark tones of reassurance. Don’t worry, people said. It kills only the old and the sick. The thought, a temporary (and misleading) escape from rising panic, crossed my mind, and surfaced in conversation. When I spoke last week to Jessica Smietana, a 30-year-old doctoral student in French literature at New York University, she admitted the thought had occurred to her, too. “I remember saying, ‘Well, you know, when it’s reaching people that aren’t in vulnerable populations, that’s when I’ll worry about it.’”
And then, like many of our unsavory national tendencies, the sentiment took an exaggerated, grotesque form in the statements of President Trump. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he tweeted in all-capital letters, signaling that he might urge states to lift protective restrictions on gatherings and businesses rather than continue to incur economic costs. In that calculus, the lives of the sick and dying became a mere data point in an actuarial account of the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impact. Mr. Trump has since changed his view, saying, “the economy is number two on my list. First, I want to save a lot of lives.”
Rightfully so. Such an easy dismissal of the sick and elderly is a ghastly indictment of one of our most cowardly cultural reflexes: an abandonment of the dying as a means of wishing away death.
It’s a weakness only the lucky can long afford, and in the midst of this pandemic, their numbers are swiftly shrinking. As coronavirus cases in the United States multiplied, Ms. Smietana, like many of us, found reason to reconsider her initial response. Her 63-year-old father, Bruce Smietana, began chemotherapy treatment for early-stage pancreatic cancer last month. “I realized what a terrible attitude this is,” she told me. “We shouldn’t think of that as an acceptable outcome — ‘Well, all these people were going to die soon enough.’”
In America, Ann Neumann writes in “The Good Death,” “death has been put off and professionalized to the point where we no longer have to dirty our hands with it.” But with the coronavirus, death has drawn too near to ignore. And this is a good thing. The dying, their value and their particular wisdom should never have been banished from our common life in the first place.
The physicians who accompany people as they face death have a unique perspective on mortality, perhaps thanks to the example of their remarkable patients. I spoke to Christopher D. Landry, a postgraduate trainee in the Columbia University psychiatry department, last month, during his emergency medicine rotation. “A lot of young people feel that life in the shadow of death is no life at all,” Dr. Landry said. “But everybody approaches that shadow eventually. And then, even people who were previously young and healthy learn to appreciate the many good things in life that they’re still able to have.”
The prospect of death also prompts a philosophical evaluation of life. These reckonings can bring the blur of ordinary life into sharp and brilliant focus.
At 19, Ms. Smietana lost her mother, and later, her older sister. From that point on, her family consisted of herself and her father, a stoic and steadfast garbage man who worked for the city of Chicago for some 30 years. Ms. Smietana told me that she had always been close with her father, but that their relationship became even more vital after the loss of her sister and mother. “That’s made this whole situation a little more intense,” she said.
Her father’s battle with a miserable disease has led her to contemplate justice, or the lack of it. He had already lost so much. Because the chemotherapy weakened his immune system, she wasn’t permitted to visit him during his treatment. He would be alone. As we spoke, her voice thinned with tears. “It feels tremendously unjust,” she said.
What Ms. Smietana saw was that the presumption of fulfillment — that the elderly have lived life, and can ask little more from it — is mistaken. As much as any young person can hope to feel more love, happiness, curiosity, satisfaction in the balance of life, so can the aged and the ill. In fact, they may experience those good things in life even more acutely for recognizing their scarcity.
In that respect, the dying may be more alive than any of us — more awake to the truths that emerge at the end of all things, and more aware of the elements of life that lend existence its meaning.
When I spoke to Mr. Smietana on the telephone, he was recovering from chemotherapy in the midst of a pandemic. But he didn’t ruminate on pain; instead, he talked about gratitude. He told me about Jessica, how she would be the first doctor in the family. He looked forward to her graduation, and to all of the other things he had no doubt she would accomplish; “she’s an amazing daughter,” he said.
And then he drew a labored breath, still exhausted from his treatment. “I’ve had a relatively great life,” he reflected. “I lost my wife, and I lost one of my daughters. But besides that, I’ve been pretty damn lucky.”
Mr. Smietana died a week later, on a cold Sunday morning in Chicago. He awoke that day with breathing trouble, and passed shortly thereafter. When I spoke with Ms. Smietana, she was still thinking about justice, or the lack of it. “Coronavirus is the reason I didn’t get to see my dad during what turned out to be the last week of his life,” she said. “It was the right thing to do. But I will regret it forever.”
As the coronavirus spreads through the population, there is one fact we can all agree on. Whether we like it or not, society’s greatest taboo – death and dying – has been thrust unequivocally centre stage.
How could it not, when government strategy is to allow the virus to infect huge swathes of the country in the hope of building sufficient “herd immunity” to protect from future harm? The virus has killed an estimated 3.4% of those it has infected, according to the World Health Organization, although this figure is expected to decline as the true number of people infected becomes apparent. Herd immunity, according to Downing Street’s chief scientific adviser, requires a minimum infection rate of 60% of the population. Thus we may face a potential early and unexpected death toll of hundreds of thousands of Britons.
There is, therefore, a glaring imperative to confront the topic so many of us long to squirm away from: the inescapable fact of mortality. As a palliative care doctor, I am intimately acquainted with our reluctance to square up to dying, and with the unintended harms of such squeamishness. Advance care planning – the phrase doctors use to describe proactively how much medical intervention you would wish for in extremis – is too frequently neglected, by patients and doctors alike.
Sometimes, for example, if an oncologist is less than candid about a patient’s frailty precluding any further rounds of chemotherapy, a family may be unaware that time is running out. Profound and vital conversations between family members never happen. Final messages hang in the air, forever unsaid.
Suddenly, the patient is comatose and fading. And no one has sought to find out if they would like heroic efforts at prolonging life – or if, perhaps, their final wish is to die at home, neither gowned nor tubed, with no machines and only loved ones at their side.
We are fast approaching a crunch time. NHS intensive care beds will be imminently overwhelmed with patients in dire need of mechanical ventilation. Italy’s experience has shown all too graphically that peak infection rates demand draconian rationing of health resources. In Lombardy, for example, some beleaguered hospitals have been forced to impose bans on ventilators for coronavirus sufferers aged over 60 – this despite knowing that it is predominantly the elderly who will die.
As Britain approaches peak infection, we therefore owe it to each other to start talking now. Would your mother, approaching 80, even wish for an intensive care bed? Do you, her anxious offspring, even feel able to find out? No one can pretend these discussions are easy. Our dearly beloved mums and dads are no less loved for their years; how on earth do we begin to broach the prospect of each other’s deaths?
If there is one thing I have learned from my time in a hospice, it is that these conversations rarely measure up to the degree with which we dread them. Indeed, for some elderly patients – conscious of their frailty – a little candour about the future can bring immense relief. It is fine to stumble, feel awkward, grope your way, get the words out wrong. In the end, all that matters is motive: the sincerity of your fumbled aim to tease out your loved one’s views.
Two medical truths may help you find the strength to talk and listen. First, every medical intervention has cons as well as pros. Even for young and healthy patients, intensive care is a gruelling experience that can leave serious, long-term medical problems. For the elderly, survival is more doubtful, let alone full restoration to good health.
Second, not every problem can be fixed. Sometimes, a disease is so aggressive that intensive care cannot cure, but only harm. When doctors conclude intensive care is not an option, it is not discrimination but a weighing-up of what might work, the sober balancing of benefits and risks.
In the end, an advance care plan need be nothing more technical than a chat over a cuppa. Steel yourself. Find out your loved ones’ wishes and tell them yours at the same time. There is kindness in being informed and prepared.
And – please – know that however besieged the health service becomes, we will never stop caring for every patient. You may be young, you may be old, but we will always do our best. How much you matter to us will never, ever run dry.
“I’m gonna die, you’re gonna die. So is everyone we’ve ever loved and hated. And that’s OK.”
By Molly Marco
When I thought about what to write for my End Well blog post, I struggled to think of something different than what I submitted last year. The story I share in last year’s piece is one I’ve now told a million times. I know it well — where to put the emphasis (“Ever onward!”) and what will get the audience’s applause. Conversely, I know what parts of my story people may want to deny or avoid: Death. Dying. Fears and deficits that come with a brain cancer diagnosis.
In July 2016, my brain tumor was discovered after I fainted off a bar stool at a downtown Detroit coffee shop. Turns out, it wasn’t just a simple faint: I had a grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma. A grade 3 astrocytoma is a junior glioblastoma (or, more accurately, a glioblastoma is a grade 4 astrocytoma). It is incurable and considered a terminal diagnosis, though many patients prefer to call it a chronic illness. That doesn’t mean I’m dying tomorrow — unless, as my neuro-oncologist once told me, I get hit by a car or something like that — it just means we don’t have a fix.
We expect my tumor to, maybe, charge up and for those rogue astrocytes to return — either as anaplastic astrocytoma again, or GBM. One or the other, no lesser. I won’t get better, we just hope that we can hold it off as long as possible before its encore performance. Worse than reoccurrence or GBM? There’s not really anything worse. It’s a turd sandwich.
Though come to think of it, there is worse. Worse is denying that reoccurrence is possible. Worse is convincing myself that I am cured and “cancer-free” (no brain cancer patient should ever be told that falsity) only to crumble and fall to pieces when new growth appears on a future MRI.
Worse is not mentally planning for future treatment, including palliative and end-of-life care. When to demand my off-switch to be clicked, so my family isn’t left making the difficult choice for me.
There may come a time when I can’t write and I can’t speak, so I plan to make these decisions while I’m still in control of my think-box.
Losing my mom last year and my aunt recently brings certain things to the forefront of my now with urgency: Death is guaranteed. Death will happen. I want to be ready. Not because I’m morbid or depressed, but the opposite of that. The thought of leaving this world — everyone and everything I love — scares me. The thought of the act of dying scares me more than death itself, to be honest. I need to be on better terms with death and dying.
If death is anything like falling off a barstool and passing out, I can handle that. The thought of an eternal afterlife I can’t even comprehend, but that sounds cool, too. But dying in pain and afraid? That is what I fear. I don’t want that. However, I choose to talk about it so I am as familiar with death and dying as I am with my own name. It’s not because I crave death, it’s because I love being alive with every fiber of my being. I love life so much.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that in loving life — truly loving life — we can accept death as a thing we all do. There should be no stigma attached to something absolutely guaranteed from the moment we come into existence: I’m gonna die, you’re gonna die. So is everyone we’ve ever loved and hated. WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE. That’s that. And that’s OK.
Last year, I suggested we live our best lives and live them right now. This year? Live our best lives, live them right now, because one day — you are going to die. Learn to let it be OK. And be ready.
If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, we can make peace with its end.
By George Yancy
This is the first in a series of interviews with religious scholars from several faiths — and one atheist — on the meaning of death. This month’s conversation is with Geshe Dadul Namgyal, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who began his Buddhist studies in 1977 at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, and went on to earn the prestigious Geshe Lharampa degree in 1992 at Drepung Loseling Monastic University, South India. He also holds a master’s degree in English Literature from Panjab University, Chandigarh, India. He is currently with the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, Emory University. This interview was conducted by email. — George Yancy
George Yancy: I was about 20 years old when I first became intrigued by Eastern thought, especially Buddhism. It was the transformation of Siddhartha Gautama to the Buddha that fascinated me, especially the sense of calmness when faced with competing desires and fears. For so many, death is one of those fears. Can you say why, from a Buddhist perspective, we humans fear death?
Dadul Namgyal: We fear death because we love life, but a little too much, and often look at just the preferred side of it. That is, we cling to a fantasized life, seeing it with colors brighter than it has. Particularly, we insist on seeing life in its incomplete form without death, its inalienable flip side. It’s not that we think death will not come someday, but that it will not happen today, tomorrow, next month, next year, and so on. This biased, selective and incomplete image of life gradually builds in us a strong wish, hope, or even belief in a life with no death associated with it, at least in the foreseeable future. However, reality contradicts this belief. So it is natural for us, as long as we succumb to those inner fragilities, to have this fear of death, to not want to think of it or see it as something that will rip life apart.
We fear death also because we are attached to our comforts of wealth, family, friends, power, and other worldly pleasures. We see death as something that would separate us from the objects to which we cling. In addition, we fear death because of our uncertainty about what follows it. A sense of being not in control, but at the mercy of circumstance, contributes to the fear. It is important to note that fear of death is not the same as knowledge or awareness of death.
Yancy: You point out that most of us embrace life, but fail or refuse to see that death is part of the existential cards dealt, so to speak. It would seem then that our failure to accept the link between life and death is at the root of this fear.
Namgyal: Yes, it is. We fail to see and accept reality as it is — with life in death and death in life. In addition, the habits of self-obsession, the attitude of self-importance and the insistence on a distinct self-identity separate us from the whole of which we are an inalienable part.
Yancy: I really like how you link the idea of self-centeredness with our fear of death. It would seem that part of dealing with death is getting out of the way of ourselves, which is linked, I imagine, to ways of facing death with a peaceful mind.
Namgyal: We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.
Yancy: That is a beautiful description. Can you say more about how we achieve a peaceful mind?
Namgyal: Try first to gain an unmistaken recognition of what disturbs your mental stability, how those elements of disturbance operate and what fuels them. Then, wonder if something can be done to address them. If the answer to this is no, then what other option do you have than to endure this with acceptance? There is no use for worrying. If, on the other hand, the answer is yes, you may seek those methods and apply them. Again, there is no need for worry.
Obviously, some ways to calm and quiet the mind at the outset will come in handy. Based on that stability or calmness, above all, deepen the insight into the ways things are connected and mutually affect one another, both in negative and positive senses, and integrate them accordingly into your life. We should recognize the destructive elements within us — our afflictive emotions and distorted perspectives — and understand them thoroughly. When do they arise? What measures would counteract them? We should also understand the constructive elements or their potentials within us and strive to learn ways to tap them and enhance them.
Yancy: What do you think that we lose when we fail to look at death for what it is?
Namgyal: When we fail to look at death for what it is — as an inseparable part of life — and do not live our lives accordingly, our thoughts and actions become disconnected from reality and full of conflicting elements, which create unnecessary friction in their wake. We could mess up this wondrous gift or else settle for very shortsighted goals and trivial purposes, which would ultimately mean nothing to us. Eventually we would meet death as though we have never lived in the first place, with no clue as to what life is and how to deal with it.
Yancy: I’m curious about what you called the “gift of life.” In what way is life a gift? And given the link that you’ve described between death and life, might death also be a kind of gift?
Namgyal: I spoke of life as a gift because this is what almost all of us agree on without any second thought, though we may differ in exactly what that gift means for each one of us. I meant to use it as an anchor, a starting point for appreciating life in its wholeness, with death being an inalienable part of it.
Death, as it naturally occurs, is part of that gift, and together with life makes this thing called existence whole, complete and meaningful. In fact, it is our imminent end that gives life much of its sense of value and purpose. Death also represents renewal, regeneration and continuity, and contemplating it in the proper light imbues us with the transformative qualities of understanding, acceptance, tolerance, hope, responsibility, and generosity. In one of the sutras, the Buddha extols meditation on death as the supreme meditation.
Yancy: You also said that we fear death because of our uncertainty about what follows it. As you know, in Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates suggests that death is a kind of blessing that involves either a “dreamless sleep” or the transmigration of the soul to another place. As a Tibetan Buddhist, do you believe that there is anything after death?
Namgyal: In the Buddhist tradition, particularly at the Vajrayana level, we believe in the continuity of subtle mind and subtle energy into the next life, and the next after that, and so on without end. This subtle mind-energy is eternal; it knows no creation or destruction. For us ordinary beings, this way of transitioning into a new life happens not by choice but under the influence of our past virtuous and non-virtuous actions. This includes the possibility of being born into many forms of life.
Yancy: As a child I would incessantly ask my mother about a possible afterlife. What might we tell our children when they express fear of the afterlife?
Namgyal: We might tell them that an afterlife would be a continuation of themselves, and that their actions in this life, either good or bad, will bear fruit. So if they cultivate compassion and insight in this life by training in positive thinking and properly relating to others, then one would carry those qualities and their potential into the next. They would help them take every situation, including death itself, in stride. So, the sure way to address fear of the afterlife is to live the present life compassionately and wisely which, by the way, also helps us have a happy and meaningful life in the present.