Living like I’m dying


I’m leaning into death to see if I can change how I feel about it.


I imagine I’m not the only person who’s written their own obituary, but maybe I’m the first one to see it in print. Writing my obit was the first task in an exercise that came to an end yesterday.

“Brown, Laurie Jane. (October 7, 1957 – March 4, 2018). Laurie died suddenly yesterday in Toronto at age 60.”

I feel like Scrooge seeing his own gravestone.

I am in perfect health, but having recently turned 60 years old, I am feeling an increasing urgency about, well, everything. Why not give myself the deadline to end all deadlines? On Dec. 4, 2017, I decided I had three months to live. Three months to make more of whatever time I have left.

So for the past three months I have been thinking about death everyday. “Is this the last time I hand wash this sweater? Is this the last time I talk with my son?” It was jarring, but I kept going. I wanted to get to a less anxious feeling about my own mortality. By trying to live as if I was dying, would I live each day differently? Might that take some of the sting out of my impending death? Is that even possible?

The first thing anyone with three months to live is told to do is “get your affairs in order.” I updated my will and my living will. Next, I collected all my banking and legal information and printed it. (Kids – it’s in a bankers box on the floor of my closet, along with the full obituary.)

I started my death exercise without telling anyone. Good thing – I could have ruined a few dinner parties. I did let one girlfriend in on it and her response was “March is still too cold to stand by your grave. Can you make it May?”

With two months left on the calendar, I flipped between two very different states of mind. On a good day? I believe I’ve had a full life, a lucky life and I’m good to go right now. But on a bad day, it’s a different story: I want to be a grandmother, I want to create more, I want to grow old. My children need me and my new partner needs me. I couldn’t bear to contemplate the end of a love I had barely begun.

I never used to think about death until my mother died at 58 of ovarian cancer. I was terrified that would happen to me. Now, I scroll through my Facebook feed reading chemo updates and news of departed friends. I feel like death is hunting me and my senses are working overtime to hear the approach. I don’t want to live in fear – so I’m leaning into death to see if I can change that.

Each morning, I opened my eyes and thought of the day in front of me. I paid attention to the morning light through my window, the luxurious feel of my bed sheets, the realization that I had no pain, and I felt great. My feet hit the floor and I jumped into my day joyously. My mantra became ‘say yes until it breaks you.’ I was sounding like an inspirational poster, with kittens. And yet, I didn’t feel as if I was truly living each day like it was my last.

Too embarrassed to talk to people about what I was up to, I turned to books. Die Wise by Stephen Jenkinson struck a huge nerve.

Stephen has been witnessing death for decades, both as head of a palliative-care unit in Toronto and as a “grief whisperer,” helping the dying and their families navigate death. Stephen has no 10-step plan to a wise death but talking about it with him on Pondercast, my podcast, was such a relief.

When my mother lay sick and dying, I felt frozen and mute, and she was keeping what she felt to herself. Probably because I didn’t ask. I have terrible regret about that. I know I’m not alone in these feelings after a parent dies.

We live in a death-phobic culture. We don’t acknowledge dying people, we keep turning the conversation in the other direction, toward life and “keeping up the fight.” We institutionalize our terminally ill and our aged and we outsource the task of dealing with our dead. Illness and death are kept as far from the living as possible – it’s no wonder we are at a loss to find anyone to talk about it with.

In the same way that women have fought to take back the birth experience – bringing it home, surrounding birth with family and siblings, making it a human experience instead of a medical one – might we do the same thing with death?

I began to question my motives in taking on this three-month death exercise. It became clear that I was anxious to learn how to handle death. I wanted to bring order to the chaos of feelings I had. I thought I could learn to embrace death just enough to think I had it pegged.

My experiment is a pale shadow to the real thing. It doesn’t compare to the anxiety and fear felt by those who are truly ill. Nor what I once felt waiting for a biopsy report.

I can’t embrace death, death will embrace me. It will have its way with me. It will be messy and confusing. Death will ask everything of me. Will I be able to accept that? Is it too much to ask that that I might I leave my life loving it?

Perhaps the strangest outcome of this morbid exercise is realizing I have a moral obligation in my final days. Dying will be my last and perhaps most important act of parenting. I need to show my children how it’s done. That death carries with it a responsibility is helpful to me, it gives my death some purpose.

I have started awkward and halting conversations about death with my father, and have asked him to let me in. I want him to share his coming death with me. It will help me when my time comes.

Keeping death in the forefront of my mind is informing everything I’m doing. It’s a funny liminal place to be – but the balance of it feels right.

Laurie Brown lives in Toronto.

Complete Article HERE!


How Often Do Cancer Survivors Think About Death and Dying?


by Rick Redner

Think back to the day you received your diagnosis of cancer. How soon did thoughts about death or dying come to your mind? For me, thoughts about death occurred within seconds after I received the news I had prostate cancer.

What’s surprising to me is how often I think about death seven years later, even though my last PSA test came back undetectable.

I decided to ask the community of men on my Prostate Cancer Pre & Post Surgery Facebook page how often they thought about death and dying.

Here’s a sample of answers I received:

  • Just passing thoughts.
  • I’m five years out and I think about it almost daily.
  • I don’t think about it any more often than before I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
  • Most days.
  • Every day.
  • I think of death too often.

The first thing I noticed was the variety of answers I received. I expected everyone to say they thought about it multiple times every day.

The answers I received suggest there’s a wide variation in how often cancer survivors think about death and dying.

The frequency of thoughts about death and dying is less important than the conversation we engage in with ourselves each time we think about dying.

My initial thoughts about death were terrifying. I imagined spending months in agonizing pain that no amount of medication would successfully manage.

I imagined my life savings would be wiped out by high deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses. I was convinced I wouldn’t live long enough to walk my daughter down the aisle, become a grandparent, retire in good health or travel with my wife.

I have a long list of friends, family and acquaintances who died within the year of receiving their diagnosis. Therefore, the possibility of surviving cancer never entered my mind.

I expected to go down hill rapidly and die within the first year after I received my diagnosis.

Every time I engaged in self-talk about dying, it ended the same way. I’d feel distressed, fearful, pessimistic about the future and overwhelmed with grief and sadness.

I wanted to protect my wife, so I kept these conversations to myself. I believe she wanted to protect me from her fears, so we coped with our individual fears together, but alone. In doing so, we deprived ourselves of the comfort and support we had to offer each other.

There are healthy, life-affirming ways to think about your own death, but where can you find them?

The Bible helped me overcome my fear and pessimism. These three verses were life changing:

  • Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12).

A diagnosis of prostate cancer taught me to number my days. Since then, every part of my life changed.

Before my cancer diagnosis, if you said to me, “You’re going to write two award-winning books, write articles and cut your work schedule down to three days a week.” I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, that’s exactly what happened.

  • O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55)

This verse is a powerful reminder to me that death isn’t the last chapter of my life.

  • We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8)

This verse reminds me of where and with whom I’m going to spend eternity.

I’m no longer distressed when I think about death and dying. I’m reminded to use my remaining time wisely. My relationships, my priorities, my values and how I use my time, skills and talents were all transformed.

Your thoughts, feelings, past experiences, attitudes, religious beliefs and your personal history coping with loss will all impact the way you speak, comfort or cause distress as you think about your mortality.

Complete Article HERE!


What It’s Like to Learn You’re Going to Die


Palliative-care doctors explain the “existential slap” that many people face at the end.

By Jennie Dear

Nessa Coyle calls it “the existential slap”—that moment when a dying person first comprehends, on a gut level, that death is close. For many, the realization comes suddenly: “The usual habit of allowing thoughts of death to remain in the background is now impossible,” Coyle, a nurse and palliative-care pioneer, has written. “Death can no longer be denied.”

I don’t know exactly when my mother, who eventually died of metastatic breast cancer, encountered her existential crisis. But I have a guess: My parents waited a day after her initial diagnosis before calling my brother, my sister, and me. They reached me first. My father is not a terribly calm man, but he said, very calmly, something to this effect: “Your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer.”

There was a pause, and then a noise I can best describe as not quite a sob or a yell, but feral. It was so uncharacteristic that I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know, whether the sound came from my father or my mother.

For many patients with terminal diseases, Coyle has observed, this awareness precipitates a personal crisis. Researchers have given it other names: the crisis of knowledge of death; an existential turning point, or existential plight; ego chill. It usually happens as it did with my mother, close to when doctors break the news. Doctors focus on events in the body: You have an incurable disease; your heart has weakened; your lungs are giving out. But the immediate effect is psychological. Gary Rodin, a palliative-care specialist who was trained in both internal medicine and psychiatry, calls this the “first trauma”: the emotional and social effects of the disease.

The roots of this trauma may be, in part, cultural. Most people recognize at an intellectual level that death is inevitable, says Virginia Lee, a nurse who works with cancer patients. But “at least in Western culture, we think we’re going to live forever.” Lee’s advanced-cancer patients often tell her they had thought of death as something that happened to other people—until they received their diagnosis. “I’ve heard from cancer patients that your life changes instantly, the moment the doctor or the oncologist says it’s confirmed that it is cancer,” she says.

The shock of confronting your own mortality need not happen at that instant, Coyle notes. Maybe you look at yourself in the mirror and suddenly realize how skinny you are, or notice your clothes no longer fit well. “It’s not necessarily verbal; it’s not necessarily what other people are telling you,” Coyle says. “Your soul may be telling you, or other people’s eyes may be telling you.”

E. Mansell Pattison, one of the early psychiatrists to write about the emotions and reactions of dying people, explains in The Experience of Dying why this realization marks a radical change in how people think about themselves: “All of us live with the potential for death at any moment. All of us project ahead a trajectory of our life. That is, we anticipate a certain life span within which we arrange our activities and plan our lives. And then abruptly we may be confronted with a crisisWhether by illness or accident, our potential trajectory is suddenly changed.”

In this crisis, some people feel depression or despair or anger, or all three. They grieve. They grapple with a loss of meaning. A person’s whole belief system may be called into question because “virtually every aspect of their life will be threatened by changes imposed by the [disease] and its management,” Lee has written. In a small 2011 Danish study, patients with an incurable esophageal cancer reported that after their diagnosis, their lives seemed to spin out of control. Some wondered why they had received a fatal diagnosis, and fell into despair and hopelessness. “I didn’t care about anything,” one patient said. “I had just about given up.”

In the 1970s, two Harvard researchers, Avery Weisman and J. William Worden, did a foundational study on this existential plight. Newly diagnosed cancer patients who had a prognosis of at least three months were interviewed at several different points. At first, for almost all the patients in the study, existential concerns were more important than dealing with the physical impacts of disease. The researchers found that the reckoning was jarring, but still relatively brief and uncomplicated, lasting about two to three months. For a few patients, the crisis triggered or created lasting psychological problems. A few others seemed to face the crisis, then return to a state of denial, and then double back to the crisis—perhaps more than once. In the study, the researchers describe a patient who was told her diagnosis, only to report to interviewers that she didn’t know what it was—and then make it clear she wasn’t interested in receiving a diagnosis in the near future.

Palliative-care doctors used to think that a patient was either in a state of denial or a state of acceptance, period, Rodin says. But now he and his colleagues believe people are more likely to move back and forth. “You have to live with awareness of dying, and at the same time balance it against staying engaged in life,” he says. “It’s being able to hold that duality—which we call double awareness—that we think is a fundamental task.”

Whether or not people are able to find that balance, the existential crisis doesn’t last; patients can’t remain long in a state of acute anxiety. Coyle has found in her work that later peaks of distress are not usually as severe as that first wave. “Once you’ve faced [death] like that once, it’s not new knowledge in your consciousness anymore,” she says.

The existential slap doesn’t always entail mental suffering, and medical professionals who work with the dying say there are rare cases in which patients seem to skip this phase altogether, or at least experience it in a much less painful way. “People can gradually come to the realization,” Coyle says. “No one has to go through the sudden shock of awareness.”

But for most, figuring out how to adapt to living with a life-threatening disease is a difficult but necessary cognitive process, according to Lee. When patients do emerge on the other side of the existential crisis, she finds that many are better off because of it. These patients are more likely to have a deeper compassion for others and a greater appreciation for the life that remains.

To arrive there, they have to squarely face the fact that they’re going to die. “If you’re an avoidant person, and you don’t like to think about these things, that works better when life is going well,” Rodin says. “It just doesn’t work well in this situation because reality doesn’t allow it. It’s like trying to pretend you don’t need an umbrella or something, or it’s not raining, when it’s pouring. You can do that when it’s drizzling, but eventually, you have to live with the rain.”

Complete Article HERE!


What Is Day Of The Dead, And What Can It Teach You About The Grief Process?


The Mexican holiday has nothing to do with Halloween, but lots to do with normalizing death.

This summer, it seemed like death was everywhere. In the course of a few short weeks I had a miscarriage and watched my dog be struck and killed as we walked down our dead-end road. Two weeks later, my aunt unexpectedly passed away in her sleep.This trio of tragedies would have left anyone reeling, but I realized that I was hurting deeply in part because I didn’t have an adequate vocabulary to talk about death. This was especially evident when I tried to answer questions posed by my 3-year-old daughter, who kept inquiring about our dog and her great aunt for months. I wanted her to understand that death was normal and even expected, but I was having a hard time remembering that myself. (Here are 5 reasons you should talk about death, even if you don’t want to.)

And then, by chance, I stumbled upon information about Dia de Los Muertos—Day of the Dead—and I was captivated. Day of the Dead is most commonly celebrated in Mexico, although other South American countries celebrate as well. It’s believed that spirits arrive on October 31 and leave on November 2. November 1, however, is the main day of celebration, and the day most commonly referred to as Day of the Dead.

Most Americans, if they have even heard of the holiday, associate it with Halloween and colorfully painted skulls. But despite the coincidental timing, it’s really a fun-filled but complex acknowledgement of death as part of life, and it combines the Catholic All Saint’s Day with indigenous traditions and beliefs.

People who celebrate it believe that, on and around November 1, spirits can easily pass between our world and the afterlife. Families might set extra places at the table, exchange stories, and prepare gifts for their deceased loved ones. But mostly the day is about fun, since many people believe spirits would be insulted if they came back to find everyone in mourning.

This seemed vastly different from how many Americans view life, death, and grieving, so I wanted to learn more. It turns out there’s a whole lot that we could all learn from Dia de Los Muertos about the grief process.

Death is a part of life.
I’ve always thought of life and death as opposites. However, Day of the Dead celebrates death as a part of life, rather than the end of it. And recognizing that life and death go hand-in-hand can ease the grieving process, says Kriss Kevorkian, PhD, an expert on grief.

“Day of the Dead connects life and death in a way that, generally speaking, Americans don’t often do,” says Kevorkian. People who celebrate it realize that their loved ones are still present in their lives, even if they aren’t physically there. “You’re not taught to believe that once your loved one dies that’s it.” By normalizing death, the grieving process also becomes normalized and less of something to fear.

A relationship doesn’t end just because someone has died.
“The first chapter of grieving is really recognizing that someone is gone from this world, and your relationship with them is changing” rather than ending, says Tracee Dunblazier, a spiritual empath and grief counselor based in Los Angeles. Whether you believe like Dunblazier does that it’s possible to communicate with the dead, or you merely believe in keeping them alive through memories, recognizing that some sort of relationship can be maintained can be very healing.

“When you think of death as final, you’re looking from a specific sliver of a perspective that does not show the whole story,” Dunblazier says.

Grief doesn’t follow a strict timeline.
When someone you love dies, everyone expects you to struggle—but only for a little while. The problem, of course, is that people don’t heal on schedule, and sometimes it takes months or even years to “move on,” especially after someone passes unexpectedly. This idea is known as complicated grief, and Western cultures usually view it as something to treat (perhaps with therapy and/or antidepressants).

Cultures that celebrate Day of the Dead, however, don’t try to force a sense of closure. Having a holiday that acknowledges the presence of the dead can make complicated grief easier to address, particularly on November 1, when the spirits are thought to be nearby. Believing that your loved ones can hear and understand you on this holiday means that you have the chance to say anything that was left unsaid before they died, says Merrie Haskins, a counselor and psychotherapist based in Minnesota.

Funerals (or at least memorials) can be fun.

In America, death is a very somber event. We wear black to funerals and talk in hushed tones. However, anyone who has ever listened to a lovingly-delivered eulogy knows that smiles and laughter are an important part of the grieving process. Although South American cultures have sad funerals as well, they incorporate happiness and fun into Day of the Dead to honor their loved ones in a more spirited way. That’s something that’s not common in American culture. (See how these 3 alternative therapies can help heal your grief, according to Prevention Premium.)

“We don’t usually have a celebration with levity, happiness, song, and dance,” says Shoshana Ungerleider, MD, chair of the End Well Symposium, an organization that focuses on quality end-of-life care. “People who celebrate the Day of the Dead take this lightness very seriously, due to the belief that spirits who come to visit would be insulted if they found everyone in mourning.”

Haskins suggests adopting that focus on fun as a way to celebrate your loved ones. For example, each year she attends an Academy Award viewing party given in honor of a particular deceased family member who used to love watching the awards show. “That makes it fun for us to remember her and for new people to get to hear about how wonderful she was,” she says.

Stop fearing death, and your own death will be better.
Everyone dies, but many people are too terrified to think about it—to their detriment. “In America, we often shy away from talking about death, loss, and grief. As a physician, I see many gravely sick people in the hospital who have never considered what they want at the end of life,” Ungerleider says. As a result, their final days can be stressful for them as well as their families, because everyone is struggling to make decisions that align with their beliefs while simultaneously dealing with the grief of imminent loss.

A celebration like Day of the Dead can make people think about their own death and plan for what they want at the end of their lives. “By accepting and discussing openly that death is a part of life, you make sure you receive the care you want.”

Complete Article HERE!


Why being aware of your mortality can be good for you


It is only nothingness … for ever and ever.

By and

Nobody likes to think about lying on their death bed. From health anxiety to midlife crises, it seems like thoughts about ageing and death can often unleash some level of neurosis. But is that the whole story? We have examined mortality awareness – the realisation that we are all one day going to die – and found that, although the prospect of death is often scary, it can also have positive effects.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, research on death awareness so far has focused largely on the negative aspects of realising that we will eventually stop living. Indeed, until now, the dominant psychological theory has been “terror management theory”, which assumes that contemplating our demise invokes fear and anxiety. For example, studies using this framework have found that thinking about death can make us more punitive and prejudiced.

However, throughout the years, literature from various fields has offered other explanations. For example, “positive psychology” proposes concepts such as “post-traumatic growth” – the idea that people can grow psychologically through traumatic experiences. Thinking about the fact that we will die may be hard, but according to this theory it could also help us to get stronger psychologically.

In our recent study, published in OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, we asked 356 participants from 18 to 80 years old questions about their experience of mortality. We asked them to indicate the extent to which they agreed with 89 statements which covered a wide variety of possible attitudes to death awareness. These included “I do not let the fear of dying rule my life”, “I want to be remembered for doing great things for the world when I am no longer alive” and “I am scared of dying before I am old”. In this way, we explored how many aspects of such awareness we could identify.

To see how the results might align with positive or negative features of their experience, we also asked our respondents about how interested they were in their health, how prone to taking risks they were, and how eager they were to conform (such as obeying rules).

Some of the attitudes we identified were negative. These included being fearful, feeling disempowered (realising personal vulnerability in the face of death), and feeling disengaged (refusing to acknowledge death). We found that those people who reported higher levels of disempowerment and disengagement also reported taking more risks and were more reluctant to conform. It may be that people who report taking greater risks do so because they feel that they will die regardless of what they do. Those refusing to conform on the other hand may be attempting to empower themselves in the face of the inevitable.

We also discovered that younger individuals and people with lower levels of education attainment were more likely to have negative attitudes to death. However, it is not all bad news for these individuals. For example, we found there was a relationship between mortality fearfulness and placing a high value on staying healthy. So it would appear that fearing death may cue attempts to control its unpredictability.

The power of legacy

Interestingly, we also found a few positive aspects of pondering mortality. One is accepting it rather than running away or fearing it, which can help us to make the most of our time-limited existence.

We also identified what we call mortality legacy awareness. This is a form of mortality awareness that drives the need to leave something behind after we have gone – thereby outliving and transcending death. This could be a highly creative force.

Having children can make us feel better about ageing and death.

The need for a legacy turned out to be an important contributor to dealing effectively with the prospect of demise, lessening feelings of hopelessness and a lack of purpose. In the study, legacy awareness was found to be correlated with both trying to be healthy and striving for spiritual growth (such as believing that life has purpose).

This suggests that those who are interested in passing down their succession to future generations as a way to transcend death are also likely to take responsibility for their health and place value on their internal development. Artists are the perfect example of this: through their creative legacies, they live on and are never totally gone. Working on leaving a legacy – whether it be producing art, raising a family, passing on family history or helping others – can also be a way for people to better tolerate ageing and face the prospect of death.

Such legacies also help those who remain to cope with their loss. On a more basic level, being aware of our ability to provide a legacy that outlives us can be an excellent way to motivate ourselves to accomplish more, stay healthy, focus on the here and now, and maintain good relationships.

Of course, the results are all based on correlations – we don’t show conclusively that striving for a legacy actually does make people feel more fulfilled. Our latest research project (currently under peer review for publication) has therefore studied 10 people’s experience of mortality awareness in depth – through one-to-one interviews. The outcomes of this work confirmed the findings from our first study and offer additional support to the claim that legacy awareness is a major element in people’s search for meaning – helping to manage death-related anxiety.

So the next time you face a haunting reminder of your death, remember that focusing on what you would like to leave behind could help you turn something terrifying into a positive motivational tool.

Complete Article HERE!


Confronting Death and Dharma at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery


Can we shift our perspective on the reality of loss?

By Lauren Krauze

When I arrived at the main gate of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, I was greeted by two talkative green birds hopping and flapping about in the grass. I was surprised; the birds seemed bright and exotic compared with the pigeons, jays, and sparrows I normally see. I later learned that these playful birds are monk parakeets—a very fitting name given that I was attending an event called Death and Dharma, a lecture and meditation series co-presented by the Brooklyn Zen Center and Green-Wood Cemetery.

Green-Wood’s high, rolling hills and shady lawns offered a cool and quiet respite from the heat and hum of downtown Brooklyn. A group of about 40 people gathered on the grass near the cemetery’s Modern Chapel, a serene space for meditating and contemplating death and dying.

“Death is a fundamental question. It’s sometimes called ‘the big question,’” said Rev. Francisco (Paco) Genkoji Lugoviña, the founder and guiding teacher at the Hudson River Peacemaker Center. “There are lots of questions, actually, and no real answers. However, at age 78, I try to live each day with as much involvement and obedience to what emerges and go with it.”

Joining Lugoviña was Rev. Daiken Nelson, the founder and guiding teacher at the Pamsula Zen Center in Harlem. Nelson and Lugoviña are both teachers and priests in the White Plum Lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and the Zen Peacemaker Order. As a pair that often teaches together, they were invited to share their insights with the Brooklyn Zen Center community.

“In the West, and particularly in the U.S., people don’t deal with death until they have to,” Nelson said. “They don’t think about it until someone they know passes away. I think it’s important to at least think about it before that happens and try to realize that it’s everyone’s fate.”

While the discussion was rich with teachings, stories, and koans from the Zen tradition, Nelson and Lugoviña also created space for people to briefly talk about their own relationships with death and dying. At the start of the discussion, they asked individuals to share one or two words that reflected their thoughts on the topic. While many people expressed a cautious wonder and curiosity about the topic, others shared words like “fear,” “uncertainty,” and “dark.”

Lugoviña didn’t seem very surprised. As a Zen teacher, he said that he often ventures into this very territory, especially in his conversations with people struggling with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. He also relayed a poignant story about his grandson, who passed away at age 23 after a methadone overdose. That experience taught him to reevaluate his intellectual understanding about death and shift toward a deep experience of gratitude.

“A friend of mine once told me she that she used to count her life by the number of summers she had left,” he said. “I think that’s a very poetic way to look at what we value in our lives and cherish what’s important to us.”

In a short work titled “Vulnerability,” acclaimed poet David Whyte writes, “The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance.” Nelson echoed this by imparting a teaching about impermanence and what can come of embracing the transient nature of experience.

“What I’ve been working with in my own practice is accepting whatever is arising,” he said. “We can learn to accept our inevitable passing, the passing of others, and the passing of this moment. Realizing something is just how it is—that it’s ‘just this,’ without it having to be any different—can give rise to freedom.”

At Green-Wood, humble gravestones and elaborate mausoleums dot the landscape, crowding some of the hills and valleys. The root of the word monument is the Latin word monere, which means “to remind.” These markers remind the living of the deceased’s name, life, and family, but for Nelson, the monuments reflect a more complicated reality that attempts to honor both the teachings of impermanence and the reality of human connection and loss.

“Once we are born, we exist, and then we spend our lives going to great lengths to express that in the world,” he said. “We spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about this self, or the ideas we have about awareness, consciousness, our connections with others, acceptance, and impermanence. Then people die, and afterwards, we want to live in the memory of them, whether it’s through their accomplishments, their stories, or things we build to honor them.”

He then introduced a teaching from Bankei, a 9th century Chinese Zen master. While recovering from a serious illness as a young man, Bankei realized his existence was nothing more than a moment-by-moment experience. He framed his realization about life as “the unborn.”

“He taught us that nothing is ever born and nothing ever dies,” Nelson said. “Life is a moment-by-moment arising and falling away. So, he said, don’t get born. Don’t fall into identification as me or you, as young or old, as a woman or a man. Even our habits are not part of our original being. Everything is unborn. Why not abide in that?”

He then looked around and chuckled.

“What better place to talk about the unborn than a cemetery?”

Many of us laughed, too. Later, during meditation, I tried to focus on the sounds and sensations I was experiencing: the gentle breeze rolling off the back of my neck, the cool grass under my feet, the soft breathing of my friends around me. At one point several birds cried out, asserting their place in the world before settling in for the evening.

I began to realize that it is possible to sit in a cemetery—a place so deeply associated with death and loss—and feel very much alive. I also understood this as something I can practice on a regular basis; when I find myself sinking into mental, physical, or emotional places of decay, I can work to more directly experience my own vitality as I honor the complicated thoughts of fear and doubt swirling within me.

By the end of meditation, the sun had dipped below the Upper New York Bay. In the lingering warmth of the afternoon, I found myself wondering how many more summers I have left. In that same moment, however, I was able to shift my perspective and realize: I am here, right now, breath-filled and conscious and capable of so much. As my friends and I walked out of the cemetery, I took comfort in their singsong voices echoing in the open twilight sky. I also noticed a pigeon’s glowing red feet, the cemetery security guard’s half-smile, and the first fireflies brave enough to shine their lanterns and welcome the night.

Complete Article HERE!


Death anxiety: The fear that drives us?


Death is often a taboo subject, so when death anxiety comes into play, it is hard to know how to face it.

Death is something that we all, sooner or later, have to face. But how do we respond to it? Why are some of us more afraid than others? And what is it, exactly, that scares us about death? We offer an overview of theories related to death anxiety, and what you can do to address it.

To a greater or lesser extent, it is likely that we are all scared of death – whether it be the thought of our own cessation or the fear that someone we love might pass away. The thought of death is not a pleasant one, and many of us avoid such morbid musings, naturally choosing to focus on what life has to offer, as well as on our own wishes and goals, instead.

Yet, as Benjamin Franklin once famously wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” so it is no surprise that death-related worries sometimes take us by storm.

Fear of death is sometimes referred to as “thanatophobia,” deriving from the Ancient Greek words “Thanatos,” the name of the god of death, and “phobos,” meaning “fear.”

Notably, thanatophobia – which is called “death anxiety” in a clinical context – is not listed as a disorder in its own right in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Still, this rarely spoken-about anxiety has the potential to seriously affect people’s lifestyles and emotional health.

Thanatophobia: Natural or trauma-driven?

Thanatophobia was first tackled by Sigmund Freud, who did not consider it to be fear of death, as such. Freud thought that we cannot truly believe in death as a real occurrence, so any death-related fears must stem from unaddressed childhood trauma.

But it was the theory put forth a little later by an anthropologist called Ernst Becker that ended up informing most current understandings of death anxiety and its causes. Becker believed that death anxiety comes naturally to all people who find the thought of death and dying unacceptable.

That is why, he argued, everything everyone does – the goals we set, our passions and hobbies, and the activities we engage in – is, in essence, a coping strategy, and that these are things we focus on so we that need not worry about our eventual death.

Becker’s work gave rise to “terror management theory” (TMT), which posits that humans must constantly deal with an internal conflict: the basic desire to live against the certainty of death. TMT emphasizes individuals’ self-consciousness and their drive to achieve personal goals, motivated by the awareness of mortality.

Also, according to TMT, self-esteem is key for the degree to which individuals experience death anxiety. People with high self-esteem are better at managing fear of death, while people with low self-esteem are more easily intimidated by death-related situations.

Some newer approaches suggest a “middle way” between TMT and another theory referred to as “separation theory,” which highlights the importance of early trauma, reinforced by an awareness of mortality later in life.

Another recent approach to understanding and explaining death anxiety is that of “post-traumatic growth theory” (PTG). According to PTG, going through a distressing event – such as the death of a loved one or receiving a worrying health diagnosis – can actually have a positive effect, causing individuals to appreciate the small things in life a lot more, or to become more goal-oriented.

Death anxiety as a disorder

Although it is likely that we will all be worried about death or a death-related situation at some time in our lives, death anxiety is only pathological when it reaches extreme levels, disrupting the normal lifestyle of an individual.

One account of death anxiety – as reported by a man’s worried wife – emphasizes how this kind of fear can become obsessive and get out of control.

The fear is specifically of death (not pain or dying as such) and the emptiness of it (he’s not religious) and the fact that he will no longer be here. […] this is an irrational, emotional fear that he has trouble controlling. Recently it has got worse – he’s not sure why – but it has made him feel panicky and the thoughts have been straying into the daytime.”

Who is afraid of death?

Dr. Robert Kastenbaum has reviewed various psychology theories and studies related to the concept of death, outlining which populations are most likely to express a persistent fear of death. Drs. Patricia Furer and John Walker summarize the findings in an article published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy.

Women are more likely than men to experience death anxiety, and this tends to peak twice: once in their 20s and again in their 50s.

  1. The majority of individuals are afraid of death. Most people tend to fear death, but they usually only exhibit low to moderate levels of anxiety.
  2. Women tend to be more afraid of death than men. Additionally, a newer study has found that while death anxiety seems to surface in both women and men during their 20s, women also experience a second surge of thanatophobia when they reach their 50s.
  3. Young people are just as likely to experience death anxiety as elderly people.
  4. There appears to be some correlation between a person’s educational and socioeconomic status and reduced death anxiety.
  5. No association has been found between religious engagement and reduced death anxiety.

Specialists argue that more often than not, death anxiety does not come on its own, and that it is instead accompanied by another type of mental health disorder (such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Other studies show that people exhibiting health anxiety, or hypochondriasis, are also affected by death anxiety, as it naturally correlates with an excessive worry about health.

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