Bringing grief and death out of the shadow is our spiritual responsibility, our sacred duty. By doing so, we may be able to feel our desire for life again and remember who we are, where we belong, and what is sacred. — Francis Weller
My mom passed on
She slipped away three years ago. Leaving my dad, my sister, my three brothers, and myself to grieve. We didn’t talk much about our grief and when we did talk to one another we’d say things like, “I’m happy mom’s in a better place.”
What does that mean? What place? And how do we know it’s better? Why didn’t we talk about mom’s death? Why didn’t we say mom died or mom’s dead to describe what happened to her?
I recently attended a Yoga Therapy conference that began to give me some clarity about how my family was handling death. The presenter put up a slide with all the words we use instead of dead, death or dying.
Here’s a few from the list —
Passed on, passed over, gone, went to heaven, went to hell, asleep, fallen, departed. Bit the dust, expired, lost, crossed over, met their maker. With the angels, their time was up, gave up the ghost, lost the battle. Resting in peace, eternal rest, asleep, demise, deceased. Departed, lost, slipped away, succumbed, kicked the bucket. Didn’t make it, breathed her last and was called home.
Ah, ha we are a culture that avoids death. Every one of us is going to die so what causes us to be such a “Deathaphobic” society that we speak indirectly about something we all get to do? Why do we look at death as something separate from living our lives?
We are afraid. So afraid of death we don’t let people die
Mom had become gravely ill five years before she died. At the time a feeding tube was put in against her wishes and she was “spared” death. Spared to descend into a living hell. Her skin peeled from her body. She couldn’t evacuate her bowels. She was in chronic pain.
Mom tried to kill herself by drinking a whole bottle of brandy and passing out on the floor. She got really close to death — her body temperature was 92 degrees when the paramedics arrived after dad called 911. Again she was resuscitated. Rescued to live a few more years of torture.
Even as she finally lay dying in the hospital she was taken into surgery for one final attempt to save her life. Obviously, my family didn’t want to face her death and we didn’t talk about it.
Again, my family is not alone. This chronic need to keep a dying person alive is what we do in America. In fact, instead of talking about death and spending money on educating ourselves about death and dying which would give us a sense of peace and calm around the subject. We frantically spend 30% of Medicare dollars every year on end-of-life heroics, extending someone’s life on average by just two months.
That’s shocking right?
100% of all people on earth are going to die. It’s nature. AND we the people who will die — don’t want to talk about it and don’t allow our loved ones to die. We walk around like death isn’t going to happen and when it does we act as if it is something we should stop.
And as far as grief is concerned. We don’t talk about it and actually feel ashamed of grieving. I’ve heard many grief-stricken people say, “I’m sorry I shouldn’t be _______ (fill in the blank). Still crying, such a mess, still hanging on, happy, in a new relationship — whatever it is that they’re doing in the throes of grief.
So, why don’t we talk about death and grief?
Fear. Death is a big unknown. If we act as if it doesn’t exist, battle it when it does, or pretend it’s not happening we mistakenly think we’ll avoid having to face it.
There is a theory in psychology called the terror-management theory. It holds that when we’re faced with the idea of death, people defensively turn to things they believe will shield them from it. Our society is turning to denial, avoidance, and heroic life-saving measures.
Live well, die well
As Dr. Sherwin Nuland wrote, “Ars moriendi as ars vivendi: The art of dying is the art of living. The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last weeks or days that we compose the message that will be remembered, but in all the decades that preceded them.”
So let’s get on with living well so we can die well. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross author of The Five Stages of Grief wrote: “If all of us would make an all-out effort to contemplate our own death, to deal with our anxieties surrounding the concept of our death… perhaps there could be less destructiveness around us.”
Hmmm?? Interesting thought. Maybe if we could all talk about death — we wouldn’t be hurting each other or killing each other on such a mass scale.
Let’s talk about death
When we allow ourselves to talk about death and grief, we deepen the quality of our lives. We bring honor, dignity, and regard to the forefront becoming more conscious of the quality of life we are living NOW.
There is no shame in dying. In fact, it’s part of being human. It’s what we signed up for. We are part of nature and everything in nature has its seasons. We know that intellectually. But in actuality, we want to deny this fact. In our denial, we lose sight of the possible peace we can make with our journey, while we are living.
Practice dying before you die
One of the best gifts from the teachings of yoga is the practice of corpse pose, savasana the art of letting go. Savasana or rest as most western yogis call it comes at the end of each yoga session.
Practice being a corpse with Savasana
Lie down on your back with your knees bent or legs straight and inner arms rolled out. Consciously, let go of your feet by breathing in and out of them and visualizing your feet releasing into the earth. Release your legs by breathing in and out of them and visualizing your legs dropping into the earth. Soften your butt cheeks, pelvis, and lower back by breathing in and out of them and visualizing your butt, pelvis and lower back releasing into the earth.
Open your belly by breathing in and out of it and visualizing your belly releasing into the earth. Relax your chest, shoulders, arms, and hands by breathing in and out of them and visualizing your chest, shoulders, arms and hands releasing into the earth. Let go of your neck and head by breathing in and out of them and visualizing your neck and head releasing into the earth.
As you get to your head empty it of all thoughts until your entire being is released and resting in a place of nothingness.
Over time, as you practice death, the thought of your own death becomes commonplace. Fear is no longer strong because you are used to letting go of you. This practice makes it comfortable to talk about dying and death because it is a common occurrence in your daily life.
My mom is dead
There I said it. Let’s all practice dying every day so we can speak directly about death. Embrace one another through our living and dying. Have compassion for this amazing experience of life and death. And from the place of living well — die well.
Let me know your thoughts on death, dying, and grief in the comments below.