Getting Familiar with Life’s Certainty: The D-Word

“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.

After Molly finished her chemotherapy, she got this tattoo. | Memento Mori: Remember you must die. Amor Fati: Love your fate

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.

Complete Article HERE!

I’m Going to Die.

I May as Well Be Cheerful About It.

By Mary Pipher

While death is inevitable, our attitude about it is not.

Generally, I don’t think about death during the day. My schedule is full, and I focus on what is right before my eyes. It’s usually only when I go to funerals that I reflect upon deaths past, present and future; most of the time I think about life. Still, about once a month I wake in the night and know with absolute clarity that I will soon be gone.

I have always felt my own finitude. My father had his first stroke at 45 and died at 54. My mother died of diabetes at 74. I am 72. I would like to attend my last grandchild’s high school graduation and meet at least one great-grandchild. However, with my family history, that is unlikely. Now, with the news filled with stories of the coronavirus, I am reminded of the many random diseases that can strike suddenly and lethally.

Like almost all my peers, I want to die young as late as possible. I don’t want to live beyond my energy level. I don’t want to suffer dementia or lie helpless in a hospital. I want to die while I still believe that others love me and that I am useful.

I have done what I can to prepare for my death. I have a will, a health care proxy and medical directives. I’ve had many conversations with my family and my doctor about end-of-life decisions. My mnemonic device for all of them is, “If in doubt, snuff me out.”

While death is inevitable, our attitudes about it are not. We can be sanguine or gloomy, solicitous of others or self-absorbed. We can approach our deaths with fear and resistance or with curiosity and a sense of mission.

Facing death offers us an opportunity to work with everything we have within us and everything we know about the world. If we have been resilient most of our lives, most likely we will cope well with our own dying. It is frightening, of course, but it is our last chance to be a role model, even a hero.

I’d like to face death with the courage of my grandmother. The last time I visited her, she was recently widowed and dying from leukemia. She lay in bed in her small home in eastern Colorado. I could see she was in pain and could barely move, but when I asked about her health, she replied: “Let’s talk about you. How is college going this year?”

When I complimented her on her courage, she said simply, “I am going to be in pain and die soon no matter how I behave, so I might as well be cheerful.”

By the time we are in our 70s, we are likely to have witnessed many people dying. I’ve seen my parents and my husband’s parents die “bad deaths” with months of suffering and too much medical intervention, and I’ve witnessed peaceful deaths in rooms filled with love. Most of us boomers know how to behave at a bedside and have a sense of how we want to act when it’s our turn to be the one in bed.

We also have had decades of observing the rituals of death — hospitals and hospice, funerals, burials and the communal meals afterward. From these experiences, we have learned what we do and don’t want when it’s our turn. We may continue some of these traditions, but we will also design our own. Some of my friends with terminal illnesses have hosted goodbye parties in parks or at our local blues bar. Wakes with dancing, music and storytelling are back in style. Many of us want pine box coffins, green burials or cremations with our ashes tossed in beautiful places.

What happens after death is a popular topic among people I know. Opinions range from, “We turn into dirt,” to “I will see the face of God.” My writer friends want heaven to have a good library. One friend believes we will return to the place we were before we were born.

Jean Nordhaus wrote, “The dead are all around us / feathering the air with their wings.” A therapist who lost her young, cello-playing husband told me she feels his presence and knows they are still deeply connected in spirit. She finds that many people are afraid to die because they have no language for the numinous; however, she is certain that neither life nor relationships end with death.

I feel death may not be as big a change as we suppose. Rather, it might be like crossing a river.

I like to think that my relatives and friends will be waiting for me on the other side. I like to imagine grassy banks and flower-filled pastures shining in the sun. I like to think a lot of things, but I don’t know for sure.

I am not a particularly mystical person, but I have had mystifying experiences. When my Aunt Grace died, I drove to the Ozarks for her funeral. Her little house was surrounded by pink surprise lilies — what my cousins called “naked ladies.” The next spring, even though I had not planted them and they had never come up before, surprise lilies popped up in my garden. The year after that they popped up again but in different places. I concluded that Aunt Grace was greeting me. If I wanted to send a message after death, I would do it with flowers, too.

I love the world but I cannot stay. Death is democratic and we will all participate in its enactment. I will miss the beauty all around me. I have taken so much pleasure in the natural world, in people and books, in music and art, in cups of coffee and lolling cats. If I knew that I had a month left to live, I wouldn’t spend my time much differently than I do now.

All of my life I have loved snow.

When I was a girl in the 1950s, snow fell often in the long winters of western Nebraska. I remember one winter when, after the streets were plowed, mountains of snow 10 feet tall stood in the middle of the streets. As a young mother, my favorite days were snow days when our family could stay home and play board games. I would make soup and popcorn. I relished taking my children outside to do the things that I had done in the snow as a girl. I loved falling asleep with my family safe on a blizzardy night when the streets were impassable and a blanket of peace covered our town.

Now, snow has become a profoundly spiritual experience. When it snows, I sit by my window and watch it fall. I go deep into its purity and softness.

Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain and calms my body.

I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.

Complete Article HERE!

On Why We Should Talk More About End-Of-Life Experiences

By Christopher Kerr, M.D., Ph.D.

In many ways, the end-of-life journey is a culmination of an integrative process that distills life into its finest moments. It is about revisiting and rewriting the life scripts we have been handed, whether by chance or by design. That said, the voices and experiences of dying patients matter. 

Dying is more than the suffering we either observe or experience. Within the obvious tragedy of dying are unseen processes that hold meaning. Dying is a time of transition that triggers a transformation of perspective and perception.

If those who are dying struggle to find words to capture their inner experiences, it is not because language fails them but because it falls short of the sense of awe and wonder that overcomes them. They experience a growing sense of connectedness and belonging. They begin to see not with their eyes but with their unlocked souls.

What it all means is that the best parts of living are never truly lost. I am reminded of this when elderly patients experience the return of the mother or father they lost in childhood; when soldiers speak of haunting battles; when children talk of dead animals returning to comfort them; and when women cradle babies long lost to their touch. This is when caution vanishes and courage prevails.

What matters is not so much what is seen but what is felt.

As poets and writers have reminded us throughout history, love endures. When the end draws near, time, age, and debility vanish to give way to an incredible affirmation of life. Dying is an experience that pulls us together by binding us to those who loved us from the start, those we lost along the way, and those who are returned to us in the end.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I find that as I grow older, I love those most, whom I loved first.” The dying most often embark on a hopeful journey in which they are embraced one more time by those who once gave their lives meaning, while those who hurt them drift away. Death is also a form of final justice, one in which the scales are balanced by love and forgiveness.

Having witnessed so much death as a hospice doctor, I can’t say that I fully embrace the notion of a “good” death. There is no such thing as a good death, only good people. Death and dying are merely extensions of what came before; we die as we lived. This cannot always be reconciled with happiness or goodness, particularly if the balance of one’s life had little to do with either.

Despite the tragedy, being a hospice doctor is uplifting.

Although I am often saddened by the tragedy and trauma that so many have endured, I remain amazed by the strength of the human spirit in its endless quest to heal what’s harmed or broken. For those denied fulfillment and happiness in life, it may be in that struggle that hope and grace reside.

Dying may be isolating and even lonely, but patients often find comfort in spaces where they can continue to express themselves, connect with others, and still matter. Long after the battle to overcome illness is lost, the dying continue to fight, but they are not fighting against, only for and toward. They fight to have relevance, to find meaning—right up until their very last breath.

Why else would people, bedridden and fading, find it in themselves to share their stories? Not the embellished versions we typically tell, but the real stuff that comes from having lived and mattered—from hard-felt pains, deep secrets, and distant losses to enduring love and wisdom regained. These moments, measured in days and hours, are not motivated by the possibility of future gain. They constitute a wished-for and self-generated ending.

Illness and tragedy naturally demand that we look inward, an artifact of our fight for survival and our innate resistance against mortality. As sickness begins to overtake the drive to live, there is a shift. The dying continue to cherish life, but not for themselves—for others. They express concern for loved ones, in gestures of kindness and hope, even as they say goodbye. Buried within their stories is the same awe-inspiring message, repeated again and again.

During the end of life, people have faith that their voices, softened or at times silent, mattered. And that they would still be heard.

Complete Article HERE!

Working in Hospice Changed My Perspective on Death

“Like many physicians, I’d never considered that there might be more to death than an enemy to be fought.”

By

Tom was only forty when he arrived at Hospice Buffalo with end-stage AIDS. Unlike most of my patients, he was not surrounded by loved ones. Not a soul came to visit, ever. He was rather stoic, so I wondered if the absence of visitors was his choice rather than an indicator of his loneliness. Maybe that was his way of refusing to give death an audience.

I was puzzled but, wanting to respect his privacy, did not inquire. Tom’s emaciated body showed traces of once-chiseled muscles. He had kept fit and was still quite young, which gave me hope. In light of his age and physical conditioning, I thought that his body would be more likely to respond positively to life-prolonging treatment. Not long after he was admitted, I went to the nurse’s station and decreed, “I think we can buy Tom some time. IV antibiotics and fluids should do it.”

The charge nurse, Nancy, had been at Hospice Buffalo for much longer than I had. She knew her job, and everyone looked up to her. She was also not one to mince words. Still, her response took me by surprise: “Too late. He’s dying.”

I said, “Oh really?”

She replied, “Yep. He’s been dreaming about his dead mother.” I chuckled awkwardly—equal parts disbelief and defensiveness. “I don’t remember that class from medical school,” I said.

Nancy did not miss a beat. “Son, you must have missed a lot of classes.”

I was a thirty-year-old cardiology fellow finishing my specialty training while working weekends at Hospice Buffalo to pay the bills. Nancy was an exceptional veteran nurse who had limited patience for young, idealistic doctors. She did what she always did when someone was out of their depth—she rolled her eyes.

I went about my business, mentally running through all the ways modern medicine could give Tom another few weeks or even months. He was riddled with infection, so we administered antibiotics. Because he was also severely dehydrated, I asked for a saline drip. I did all I could do as a doctor to prolong his life, but within forty-eight hours, Tom was dead.

Nancy had been right in her estimation of where he was on the downward slope. But how could she have known? Was it just pessimism, the numbing effect of having watched so many people die? Was she truly using a patient’s dream as a predictor of life-span? Nancy had worked in hospice for more than two decades. She was tuned in to aspects of dying I knew nothing about: its subjective dimensions. How patients experienced illness, particularly dying, had mostly been ignored throughout my training as a doctor.

Like many physicians, I’d never considered that there might be more to death than an enemy to be fought. I knew about blind intervention—doing everything possible to keep people conscious and breathing—but had little regard for the way any given individual might wish to die, or for the unavoidable truth that ultimately death is inevitable. Because it had not been part of my medical education, I failed to see how the subjective experience of dying could be relevant to my role as a doctor.

It was ultimately the remarkable incidence of pre-death dreams and visions among my dying patients that made me realize how significant a phenomenon this was, both at a clinical and a human level. As a hospice doctor, I have been at the bedsides of thousands of patients who, in the face of death, speak of love, meaning, and grace. They reveal that there is often hope beyond cure as they transition from a focus on treatment to notions of personal meaning. As illness advances, grace and grit collide and bring new insight to those dying and their loved ones, insight that is often paradoxically life-affirming. This experience includes pre-death dreams and visions that are manifestations of this time of integration and coming into oneself. These are powerful and stirring experiences that occur in the last days or hours of life and that constitute moments of genuine insight and vivid re-centering for patients. They often mark a clear transition from distress to acceptance, a sense of tranquility and wholeness for the dying. Patients consistently describe them as “more real than real,” and they are each as unique as the individual having them.

These end-of-life experiences are centered on personal histories, self-understanding, concrete relationships, and singular events. They are made of images and vignettes that emanate from each person’s life experiences rather than from abstract preoccupations with the great beyond. They are about a walk in the woods relived alongside a loving parent, car rides or fishing trips taken with close family members, or seemingly insignificant details such as the texture or color of a loved one’s dress, the feel of a horse’s velvety muzzle, or the rustling sound of a cottonwood’s shimmering leaves in the backyard of a childhood home. Long-lost loved ones come back to reassure; past wounds are healed; loose ends are tied; lifelong conflicts are revisited; forgiveness is achieved.

Doctors owe it to their patients to incorporate this awareness into our practice. End-of-life experiences ought to be recognized as evidence of the life-affirming and inspiring resilience of the human spirit that drives them. They are proof of humanity’s built-in, natural, and profoundly spiritual capacity for self-sustenance and self-healing, grace and hope. They help restore meaning at end of life and assist in reclaiming dying as a process in which patients have a say. They also benefit those left behind, the bereaved, who get relief from seeing their loved ones die with a sense of peace and closure.

This subjective experience of dying is also a powerful reminder that beauty and love in human existence often manifest themselves when we least expect it. The patients who summon up comforting processes at life’s end are beset by symptoms of a failing body over which they have limited control. They are at their most frail and vulnerable, existing within suffering states of aching bones and hunger for air. Catheters, IVs, and pills may now be part of their every day, sometimes literally functioning as extensions of their bodies under the daily medical management that is their new and irreversible lot. They may experience various degrees of cognitive, psychological, and spiritual dissonance. Yet even as the inexorable march of time is taking its toll on their bodies and minds, many also have pre-death dreams and visions in the context of which they display remarkable awareness and mental sharpness.

Herein truly lies the paradox of dying: patients are often emotionally and spiritually alive, even enlightened, despite a precipitous physical deterioration. The physical and psychological toll of dying may be undeniable, but it is also what makes the emotional and spiritual changes brought about by end-of-life experiences border on the miraculous. Doing justice to end-of-life experiences means accounting for this paradox, one in which death and dying transcend physical decline and sadness to include spiritual awakening, beauty, and grace. Or, as the title character in the acclaimed Tuesdays with Morrie puts it, “Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. It’s more than the negative that you’re going to die.” This is also true of the dying process, which often functions as a summing up, culmination, and capstone, an opportunity to recognize and celebrate our humanity in all its complexity and dignity rather than just as an ending.

Excerpted from DEATH IS BUT A DREAM by Christopher Kerr, MD, PhD and Carine Mardorossian, PhD. Published on February 11, 2020 by Avery, and imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by William Hudson, LLC

Complete Article HERE!

‘I want to stare death in the eye’:

why dying inspires so many writers and artists

By &

It may seem paradoxical, but dying can be a deeply creative process.

Public figures, authors, artists and journalists have long written about their experience of dying. But why do they do it and what do we gain?

Many stories of dying are written to bring an issue or disease to public attention.

For instance, English editor and journalist Ruth Picardie’s description of terminal breast cancer, so poignantly described in Before I say Goodbye, drew attention to the impact of medical negligence, and particularly misdiagnosis, on patients and their families.

American tennis player and social activist Arthur Ashe wrote about his heart disease and subsequent diagnosis and death from AIDS in Days of Grace: A Memoir.

His autobiographical account brought public and political attention to the risks of blood transfusion (he acquired HIV from an infected blood transfusion following heart bypass surgery).

Other accounts of terminal illness lay bare how people navigate uncertainty and healthcare systems, as surgeon Paul Kalanithi did so beautifully in When Breath Becomes Air, his account of dying from lung cancer.

But, perhaps most commonly, for artists, poets, writers, musicians and journalists, dying can provide one last opportunity for creativity.

American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak drew people he loved as they were dying; founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, while in great pain, refused pain medication so he could be lucid enough to think clearly about his dying; and author Christopher Hitchens wrote about dying from oesophageal cancer despite increasing symptoms:

I want to stare death in the eye.

Faced with terminal cancer, renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, if possible, more prolifically than before.

And Australian author Clive James found dying a mine of new material:

Few people read

Poetry any more but I still wish

To write its seedlings down, if only for the lull

Of gathering: no less a harvest season

For being the last time.

Research shows what dying artists have told us for centuries – creative self-expression is core to their sense of self. So, creativity has therapeutic and existential benefits for the dying and their grieving families.

Creativity provides a buffer against anxiety and negative emotions about death.

It may help us make sense of events and experiences, tragedy and misfortune, as a graphic novel did for cartoonist Miriam Engelberg in Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person, and as blogging and online writing does for so many.

Creativity may give voice to our experiences and provide some resilience as we face disintegration. It may also provide agency (an ability to act independently and make our own choices), and a sense of normality.

French doctor Benoit Burucoa wrote art in palliative care allows people to feel physical and emotional relief from dying, and:

[…] to be looked at again and again like someone alive (without which one feels dead before having disappeared).

A way of communicating to loved ones and the public

When someone who is dying creates a work of art or writes a story, this can open up otherwise difficult conversations with people close to them.

But where these works become public, this conversation is also with those they do not know, whose only contact is through that person’s writing, poetry or art.

This public discourse is a means of living while dying, making connections with others, and ultimately, increasing the public’s “death literacy”.

In this way, our conversations about death become more normal, more accessible and much richer.

There is no evidence reading literary works about death and dying fosters rumination (an unhelpful way of dwelling on distressing thoughts) or other forms of psychological harm.

In fact, the evidence we have suggests the opposite is true. There is plenty of evidence for the positive impacts of both making and consuming art (of all kinds) at the end of life, and specifically surrounding palliative care.

Why do we buy these books?

Some people read narratives of dying to gain insight into this mysterious experience, and empathy for those amidst it. Some read it to rehearse their own journeys to come.

But these purpose-oriented explanations miss what is perhaps the most important and unique feature of literature – its delicate, multifaceted capacity to help us become what philosopher Martha Nussbaum described as:

[…] finely aware and richly responsible.

Literature can capture the tragedy in ordinary lives; its depictions of grief, anger and fear help us fine-tune what’s important to us; and it can show the value of a unique person across their whole life’s trajectory.

Not everyone can be creative towards the end

Not everyone, however, has the opportunity for creative self-expression at the end of life. In part, this is because increasingly we die in hospices, hospitals or nursing homes. These are often far removed from the resources, people and spaces that may inspire creative expression.

And in part it is because many people cannot communicate after a stroke or dementia diagnosis, or are delirious, so are incapable of “last wordswhen they die.

Perhaps most obviously, it is also because most of us are not artists, musicians, writers, poets or philosophers. We will not come up with elegant prose in our final days and weeks, and lack the skill to paint inspiring or intensely beautiful pictures.

But this does not mean we cannot tell a story, using whatever genre we wish, that captures or at least provides a glimpse of our experience of dying – our fears, goals, hopes and preferences.

Clive James reminded us:

[…] there will still be epic poems, because every human life contains one. It comes out of nowhere and goes somewhere on its way to everywhere – which is nowhere all over again, but leaves a trail of memories. There won’t be many future poets who don’t dip their spoons into all that, even if nobody buys the book.

Complete Article HERE!

Death came a knocking- Ruthie Foster

Death came a knockin’
You know that death came a knockin’ on the mama’s door
Singin’ come on mama, ain’t you ready to go
And my mama stooped down, buckled up her shoes
And she moved on down by the Jordan stream
And then she shout “Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin’ shoes”

You know that death came a knockin’ on the sister’s door
Singin’ come on sister, ain’t you ready to go
And my sister stooped down, buckled up her shoes
And she moved on down by the Jordan stream
And then she shout “Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin’ shoes”

You know that death came a knockin’ on the brother’s door
Singin’ come on brother, ain’t you ready to go
And my brother stooped down, buckled up his shoes
And he moved on down by the Jordan stream
And then he shout “Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin’ shoes”

You know that death came a knockin’ on the neighbor’s door
Singin’ come on neighbor, ain’t you ready to go
And my neighbor stooped down, buckled up his shoes
And he moved on down by the Jordan stream
And then she shout “Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin’ shoes”

You know that death came a knockin’ on the preacher’s door
Singin’ come on preacher, ain’t you ready to go
And my preacher stooped down, buckled up her shoes
And she moved on down by the Jordan stream
And then she shout “Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin’ shoes”

You know that death came a knockin’ on my front door
Singin’ come on sister, ain’t you ready to go
So I stooped down, buckled my shoes
And I move on down by the Jordan stream
And then I shout “Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin’ shoes”

Facing the Fact of My Death

As a child, confronting my mortality was terrifying. Now it is an opportunity.

Mr. Yancy is a philosopher and professor.

By George Yancy

As a young boy, I recall very clearly telling my mother with an innocent defiance that I wished that I had never been born because I will die someday. I can’t recall her response, but I’m sure it worried her and left her feeling hurt. But I was frustrated, angry, afraid. While I knew that people died, it had suddenly dawned on me that I would be among them, that I will die someday. It was an epiphany — one I would rather have not had. I recall thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this. Who is playing this terrible joke on me?”

Strange, I realize, but there I was — a child, elated to be alive, feeling the warmth of the sun on my brown skin, playing with friends in the streets, eating ice cream, celebrating birthdays, enjoying unconditional love shown to me by my mother and my older sister. Why did I have so much joy and shared love just to someday have it all taken away, gone forever? And I understood “gone forever” to mean never ever existing again. Done! Kaput! It made absolutely no sense to me.

I experienced the fact of my death as a cosmic slight. I could not get it out of my head. Even at that young age, I began to feel the heavy weight of my finitude. I couldn’t put it down, even though I wanted to. Death was now too close.

It was dreadful. That sense of unthinking longevity, invulnerability, cavalier confidence — hell, just being a child — gave way to a deep and frightening reality that I could not control. The childlike omnipotence collapsed and left me facing an abyss. The abstract fact of death had become personal. I had come to realize that not a single moment is guaranteed, not another breath, another blink of an eye, another hug from my mother or clash with my sister.

As I grew older this feeling of existential dread stayed with me — of being thrown into existence without any clear sense of why we’re here, of wondering whether or not God exists, whether or not the cosmos has any meaning beyond what we give it, whether or not we have immortal souls, whether there is anything to be discovered after death or whether death is the final absurd moment of our being. I was like the French-Algerian existentialist Albert Camus, who wrote of having “conscious certainty of a death without hope.”

As an adult, this uncanniness goes unabated; it has not stopped. There are times when, like the 17th-century thinker Blaise Pascal, I feel trapped between two infinities of meaninglessness. In his unfinished work, “Pensées,” Pascal writes, “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the small space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me. I wonder why I am here rather than there, now rather than then. Who set me here? By whose order and design have this place and time been destined for me?”

The fact of death is like a haunting. It frequents me, entangled in everything I do: It’s just beneath my pillow as I sleep, strolling next to me as I casually walk from one class to the next, inserting its presence between each heart beat in my chest, forcing its way into my consciousness when I say “I love you” to my children each night, assuring me that it can unravel the many promises that I continue to make, threatening the appointments that I need to keep. This sense of haunting is what the Harvard professor Cornel West calls the “death shudder.” Of this “shudder” in the face of death, he writes, “Yes, dread and terror were involved, but also perplexity. Exploration. Where does nonexistence take you? What does it mean to be stripped of your own consciousness? How do we live with the idea that we are always tantalizingly close to death? At any moment the bridge can collapse.”

I continue to shudder. Yet there is something about facing the fact of death that invites us to double back, to see our existence, our lives, differently. The scholar Mark Ralkowski, reflecting on Martin Heidegger’s notion of “being-toward-death,” writes: “In rare moments, we can be returned to ourselves by an experience of anxiety (Angst), which disrupts the tranquillity of the everyday world by emptying it of its usual significance and meaning. In these moments, none of our projects or commitments makes sense to us anymore, and we see that we are committed to roles prescribed to us by das Man” — which means “the they” or “the crowd.”

I want my students to experience one of those “rare moments,” to consider the short duration of their lives. To get them to think differently about our time together, to value their lives differently, I make a resolute effort to remind my students that all of us, at some point, sooner or later, will become rotting corpses. That, I explain, is the great equalizer. No matter how smart, brilliant, wealthy, beautiful and fit you are, no matter how great your MCAT, LSAT or G.P.A. scores, no matter your religious or political orientation, we will all perish.

After hearing this, students will often become completely silent. There is a sudden recognition that something has been haunting our joy, our unquestioned and collective happiness, our sense of “permanence.” It is palpable. No matter how many times I’ve decided to remove the veil, the sting of our collective finitude continues to hit me, along with the reality of bodily decomposition and putrefaction. The unspoken reality of death, which is the haunting background of our lives, shakes my body; I mourn for me and my students, and humanity.

Yet a clarity emerges. My students and I see each other differently, perhaps for the very first time. We are no longer simply students and professor, but fragile creatures and mysterious beings who have been dying from the moment we were born in a universe with no self-evident ultimate meaning. Something as previously uneventful as sitting next to one’s fellow classmate takes on unspeakable value. That shared understanding, vulnerability and mutual recognition of collective destiny makes our time together even more joyful, even more precious.

I’m not sure if the “death shudder” will ever abate while I’m alive. And I am no closer to understanding the fact that I exist or why I must die. I don’t seem to be able to achieve the necessary adjustment, the solace of acceptance. In his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” Wittgenstein helps to give voice to something mysterious about our being: It is that we exist, and that we will die, which is so uncanny. It is that both life and death are inextricably braided together that elicits the shudder. And the shudder and the uncanniness point beyond mere facts. They function, at least for me, as gestures, as intimations of a beyond, that enthrall my soul.

So, sooner or later I will die. I’m assured that it will happen. I know that if you are reading this article 100 years from now, I will no longer exist. I will have paid the debt for the gift of being. Death is our collective fate. Yet so many of us fear to talk about it, fear to face it, terrified by the idea of nonbeing. But we must face our destiny, our rendezvous with death. Indeed, the concept of death is a deep and perennial theme in philosophical and theological-religious thought; it is one of the Big Questions. As the philosopher Todd May writes, “Of course, most religions don’t claim that we don’t die. But there is, for many religions, a particular sense in which we don’t really die.”

It is in this spirit of exploration that I will interview 12 deeply knowledgeable scholars, philosophers and teachers, one each month, about the meaning of death in their respective traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Jainism and others. I will be asking questions like: What is death? Why do we fear death? Is death final? Do we have immortal souls? What role does death play in how we ought to live our lives?

The objective is not to find definitive answers to these eternal questions, but to engage, as my students and I try to do in our classes, in a lively discussion about a fact that most of us would rather avoid, and move ourselves a little closer to the truth.

Complete Article HERE!