My friend told me that she recently had a death dinner! A Death Dinner!
Her idea was to invite friends over to talk about how they want to die. The amazing thing is that she had eight friends willing to join her in a conversation that NO ONE wants to have.
Yet, it is a conversation that we all need to be starting, whether we are a healthy 60 year- old, a disabled 70 year -old, a terminally ill 80 year- old, or a frail 90 year -old. Death can be around the corner for any of us. While we may not be able to choose when we die, or the physical illness by which we die, we can choose how we want to die.
The Fear of Death
As with so many fears, facing death can be complicated. The fear of death, however, has an additional challenge in that almost everyone wants to avoid the conversation. Unlike a fear of heights that could be a rousing dinner table discussion of “So how did you manage working on the fifty-first floor?”, death is avoided like the plague. As my friend described, after an initial sharing of “Why did I decide to attend this Death Dinner?”, all of her attempts to keep the conversation focused on topics surrounding death, failed.
What’s scary about talking about death? For each of us the fear profiles in different ways, but in general, we are afraid of the pain, and we are afraid of being alone. Ironically, the lack of conversations about death intensifies the feeling of aloneness. Not knowing loved ones’ feelings leaves the dying person feeling more isolated. What a vicious cycle!
Death may force us to face spiritual questions we have circumvented, or relationship issues that we have spent a life-time avoiding. At a time of reckoning, we can imagine a list of regrets, all those things we did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say. The list may be too long to reconcile.
Ways of Wonder
Death is mysterious. In the old days, when multi-generational families lived together and death was less institutionalized, people grew up around death. They could see that it is a part of life. Today, however, how many of us have shared a death experience with a loved one? Death no longer feels natural and peaceful.
But it can be peaceful. The best way to move out of the fear and isolation is through conversations: Conversations now, when death may feel miles away; conversations especially when death is approaching its last lap.
Regrets and Gratitude
Regrets are a good place to start. When you still have some time, you might actually choose to do something about them. Maybe it’s time to forgive, give extra money to a charity, or make a point of spending extra time with some special person. Maybe you decide to make a reality of the wish that you nurtured all these years to paint, or instead, realize that you really don’t like gardening and decide that you will let someone else take care of the earth.
Once the regrets are out of way, you can open the door to gratitude. There is so much to be grateful for in this world; whether it circles around relationships or material things, experiences or qualities, each of us has been blessed with gifts. Recounting those gifts balances any regrets and allows us to feel at peace.
As we choose to experience our death as fully as possible, talking about our legacy becomes important. What is it that we want to leave to this world? Thinking about our legacy helps make death more meaningful. Our legacy may be in the form of an ethical will, something we write that shares our values, or it may take the shape of children and grandchildren. Still others leave legacies through giving to the community, writing, creating deep relationships or repairing the earth.
Sometimes, however, we forget about the little pieces we leave behind, those memories that our loved ones will cherish when we are gone. The laughter you shared can be as important as the deep conversation that you never managed to initiate; the favorite meal as significant as a trip to Paris that you weren’t able to afford; and the moments of sitting in silence together as peaceful as the poem that you never quite got around to revealing. Our lives have been useful and impactful; we have given much that remains in the wake. Reminding ourselves of our many legacies softens the fears. We don’t disappear, but instead, stay alive in the hearts of others.
And then there is that death conversation. Looking at our legacies and valuing our gratitude are clearly important processes to make death more peaceful and purposeful; yet the conversations ABOUT death with others are the substance that breaks through the fears and the isolation. Depending how far away death feels at this moment, you might want to talk about—if you have your “druthers”- how and where you would like to die, and what you want to be done with your body once your death is completed. Who would you like to be with you as you die, and who don’t you want in the room? What role do you see for spiritual guidance, and how much medical intervention would you prefer? All of these decisions are a part of who you are, what you value, and the power you enjoy to create your own death.
In the end, we can strengthen the bonds of love. We can empower ourselves as well as connect with those we are leaving behind.
We can explore the mysteries of death and find peace in the process.