Death, that threshold into the unknown, has visited our homes during the last twelve months, if only in the newspaper. We have looked at the obituary pages, and seen familiar faces looking out at us – the faces of people we have known and loved or known slightly but admired nonetheless. We’ve seen the faces of people who died tragically, and others who had fought the good fight against potent diseases. To talk about death before it’s proximate for us or for our loved ones is an important thing to do. For, when death is proximate, we want to deny it, to negate it. Death infuriates us, makes us fearful, absorbs us in its details. Death, when it is upon us or our loved ones, can hold us hostage. At that point, we cannot hold death up to the light, examine it, study it, put it in a life context or learn the lessons that human history, religion and culture have to teach us about death.
The Rev. Peter Gomez says in The Good Book, “Death is not something we want to understand or know; death is somehow unfair, and in this country it is culturally unconstitutional, violating our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” At the same time, individuals and groups are searching for ways to help people be healthy in their dying. We also find people understanding death in spiritual, religious and metaphysical terms and valuing these understandings. Americans are coming to recognize death as a life companion . It takes a certain daring to learn lessons of death and dying before one needs them.
Death is too important a time in our life to enter into without thinking about it – without preparation, but we are sorely tempted to do just that. I don’t mean the how, when and where of dying. We can fantasize about those things, but it’s not likely that we will die the way we think or would like. Instead, it would be valuable to prepare our minds and hearts for a reversal. Usually, we prepare for the more: higher education prepares us for work, maturing prepares us for relationships, growing to adulthood prepares us to embrace a bigger world. Preparation for death acknowledges that one day, work will diminish, relationships will no longer be as they were. Our world will shrink, for as we die, we shed expectations, plans, the need to possess. Preparation for death opens us to the paradox: less is more. Yes. In the face of death, less is indeed more.
The mystical teachings of ancient lands and people as well as the Christian tradition all speak of death as a passage. Not the end, a passage. Death is another stage of growth. Those of us who embrace Christianity acknowledge the passion and death of Jesus as an indispensable part of our tradition. If Jesus had died, and that was all, our faith would be fruitless. But our tradition holds that Jesus passed through death to new life. We call Him the firstborn from the dead, and what was real and true of Him is a promise for all of us who live. Death is a door to life. It’s not an easy door to pass through. It includes suffering. But for Christians who understand the meaning of Christ and the power of His own experience, the only way out of suffering is through it, and only Christ can get us through it.
We hope we will die well. But that can only happen if we do sufficient “death-thinking” earlier in life. As the author Ira Byock reminds us, “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 days or weeks that we compose the message of how we will be remembered, but in the decades that precede them .Who lives is dignity, dies in dignity.”
-Sister Joan Sobala