This is part four of the death and dying series. In this piece, Judith Johnson presents some thoughts for those who are confronted with death and how to respond in ways that move past the fear that death usually invokes. I think while we are challenged to face and confront death, it can have some unplanned consequences in one’s social life. Those who have come to grips with death being part of life, often will feel a sense of disconnect with those who haven’t fully confronted his/her own mortality.
There are those among us who are leading the way in demonstrating how to break free of society’s taboo around death. While most of us might be likely to awkwardly say “your color looks good today” to a dying loved one, someone who has made peace with death would be more likely to take his or her hand and say, “I love you and am going to miss you so much.”
For most of us, being around dying and death evokes a visceral response of fear and avoidance. We basically view life as good and death as bad. Our fear makes us contract and respond in fight or flight or freeze mode. We react against death and try to keep it away from us precisely because we have been taught that it is bad. People who have made peace with death have a completely different mindset. They tend to see death as normal as birth and are as open to its wonders and mysteries as they are to those of birth. This doesn’t mean that they are exempt from the sorrow and grief of losing a loved one. However, they have learned how to bring their loving, caring, kindness, compassion and even humor to the bedside of the dying.
Next time you find yourself in the presence of a dying loved one while hiding your tears and
sorrow behind a fragile masked smile, consider the following keys to how people who have made peace with death behave:
- See death as normal. Rather than seeing death as something awful to be avoided at all cost, see if you can shift your thinking by exploring the fact that while death is inescapable, our attitudes and beliefs about death are actually quite negotiable. Challenge yourself to break free of giving death such a bad rap. If you believe in God, consider the fact that God was not suffering a loss of intelligence and simply having a bad day when conceiving of death as essential to the human experience.
- Don’t try to run away from death or avoid it — be in it and be open to experience it. As with any fear, the fear of death kicks in the fight/flight/freeze response. This instinctual response is built upon the assumption that there is something terribly wrong with death. When you liberate yourself from only seeing death as bad, you will begin to recognize that death is a great teacher of how to embrace and honor life more deeply. Be open to the lessons that death presents to you. Breathe into death rather than standing breathless in fear of death. Stories and memories of the dying and their loved ones are rich with references to sharing a sweeter and more profound love than ever before. Be vulnerable. It’s OK to cry. We don’t need to protect each other from the depth of our emotions, but rather to give each other permission to authentically share our truth.
- Focus on being of service. Do what you can to make the journey of dying and death easier for yourself and others. When you are not busy being afraid of death, you can set about the business of being of service. If you are the person with a terminal illness this might involve putting your affairs in order — for example, being sure you have an up-to-date will or trust and health care directives, documenting your preferences for your eventual end-of-life ritual, organizing your files and personal affairs, saying thoughtful goodbyes and giving your forgiveness where needed. If your loved one is dying, you can be of service just by showing up and paying attention to what is needed in the moment — a tissue, a foot rub, reading a book, sharing memories, or just silently bearing witness. Don’t forget to include the family and primary caregiver of the dying. Dropping off a quart of soup or calling and asking if you can provide some shopping, cooking, cleaning or laundry relief or something else that would be of help are all expressions of a consciousness of service.
- Be fearless. Be authentic. Be yourself. Be loving. When you disassemble your fear, you are left with your authenticity. When you are authentic, it is easier to feel and express your loving. When all is said and done, freedom from fear is better than being paralyzed by fear. It takes courage to achieve freedom from the external pressure to conform to a mode of behavior that serves no one. Have the courage to let your loving and caring show no matter how difficult and awkward it might feel to express it. The more you allow yourself to express it, the less awkward it feels. Think about it. If you were dying, what would you rather have someone bring you than love? What could possibly be more precious to you? Think about that next time you just don’t know what to say or find yourself avoiding the dying and their loved ones.
- Allow yourself and others to fully experience the range of grief and sorrow that are normal parts of dealing with dying, death, and bereavement. Emotions can be messy and challenge our preference for the illusion that we can control life. When we don’t express our emotions, we tend to repress them and/or medicate them away. Consider this request from a grieving woman posted on www.opentohope.com:
“I wish you would not be afraid to speak to me about what is going on in my life, and to ask what you can do to help. If I cry or get emotional when we talk about them, I wish you knew that it isn’t because you have hurt me. The fact that I have suffered has caused my tears … I wish you wouldn’t pretend that nothing is happening to me, because it is a large part of my life. I need my friends and family by my side … I wish you wouldn’t think that if I have a good day, my grief is over, or that if I have a bad day, I need psychiatric counselling. Grieving and what I’m going through is not contagious, so I wish you wouldn’t shy away from me. I wish you knew that all of the “crazy” grief reactions I am having are in fact very normal. Depression, anger, frustration, hopelessness, and questioning of values and beliefs are to be expected during and following what is happening to me. I wish you wouldn’t expect my grief to be over if and when I appear to be smiling or happy. I wish you would understand the physical reactions to grief. I may gain weight or lose weight … sleep all the time or not at all … want to surround myself with business or be all alone, all of which may be related to my grief … Please don’t try to coerce me into being cheerful or tell me that it will be better soon … I wish you would not offer me drinks or drugs to ease the pain. These are just temporary crutches. The only way I can get through this grief is to experience it, and sometimes immerse myself in it. I have to hurt before I can heal. I wish you understood that grief and difficult situations change people. I am not the same person I was before I experienced it nor will I ever be that person again …To read the full text go to: http://community.opentohope.com/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=107#p190
It is entirely up to each and every one of us whether we stay frozen in fear in the face of dying, death and bereavement or break free and make peace with the normalcy of death. I invite you to try some of the suggestions given above and to share other ideas through comments below.