Saying yes to death can be a healthy part of a fulfilling life

loss, grief, healing and living well

Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Acknowledging our mortality can be frightening; we feel out of control. Yet, it does not benefit us in any way to think we will live forever. Rather, it makes us lazy and thoughtless and neglectful.

Flipping through a magazine recently I came upon a photo essay of the Mexican festival called The Day of the Dead. The images were fantastic: Large, extended families gathered in cemeteries picnicking, arranging bouquets of brightly-colored flowers in front of spruced-up gravestones, children running and playing, popping candy skeletons into their laughing mouths. Through the accompanying text I learned that the festival is a time for the Mexican people to rejoice in their children and to honor their dead, a celebration of the continuity of life. The ease with which these people embrace death as a natural part of the cycle of life is inspiring. The small, but intimate ways the living maintain their relationships with the dead in everyday life create an environment of familiarity and well-being rather than one of fear and denial.

A friend told me this story: Her widowed mother-in-law had a stroke and was in the hospital, comatose. After several days without any change in her condition, the doctors started asking my friend and her husband what their mother's wishes were with regard to being on life support, etc. They had no idea since they had never discussed it with her. They were very upset at the thought of being forced to make life-and-death decisions for their mother without any knowledge of what she would have wanted for herself. Unlike many similar stories, this one had a happy ending - the mother regained consciousness and was not so impaired that she could not make decisions about her health care. More importantly, they could have those conversations about death and dying they had avoided in the past. How is it that in this age of communication we can die without ever really knowing each other?

After the sudden death of my partner, I experienced a period of personal growth that left me breathless. Two and a half years later, I can say that I am grateful for having had the opportunity to deepen my appreciation of life and all it holds. The pulse of my existence resonates now with the following refrain: Life is short, life is short, life is short. I've shared these words with more than a few people and have, not surprisingly, met with some resistance. Coming from me, I know those words sound like a death knell, a warning not many wish to hear. In fact, I offer them as a gift; a lesson not learned the hard way. By making that phrase the mantra we free ourselves to live and love in a way that otherwise is not possible. If we truly believe that now is all we have we might find ourselves rising above the pettiness that seems to overrun our lives sometimes. If we work from the assumption that this moment may be the last moment we have with our loved ones, we may find ourselves being more attentive and patient and supportive. Immediacy does not have to be a harbinger of loss. It can simply slow our pace, help us prioritize. Being present in our lives is not as easy as it sounds. Dwelling in the past and worrying about the future are often ways of avoiding the hard work of creating a meaningful life. Acknowledging our mortality can be frightening; we feel out of control. Yet, it does not benefit us in any way to think we will live forever. Rather, it makes us lazy and thoughtless and neglectful. And I know there is comfort in thinking we will always be here for each other, but there is comfort, too, in savoring every moment we spend together. For the day will come for us to say goodbye one to the other, and the parting will come easier if we have given all that we could give, loved as much as we could love.

In the last 100 years the average life expectancy has risen from 47 years to 77 years, an awesome leap. But one thing has not changed we all die. And as the 75 million baby boomers in America today move inexorably toward old age more people will be dying every day. Between 2010 and 2040 deaths in this country are estimated to reach 3 million annually. This generation has never lacked the courage when it comes to changing the fabric of our society; maybe now's the time for us to gather our children, dust off the photo albums and, with arms full of marigolds, head for the cemetery.

Mary Cook is a hospice volunteer who divides her time between Gustavus and Juneau.

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