I’ve been reflecting much on death and dying recently. I seem to have encountered the concept frequently via personal and professional contacts. A couple of months ago, I was given the opportunity to say goodbye to a beloved professor from my doctorate program. After fighting metastasized cancer for 14 years, this woman was officially given two to three weeks to live. Along with approximately 40 other students from my program, I was given the honor of sitting in her presence for two hours, expressing to her my deep gratitude for her life and love. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Despite the fact that this woman has been “dying” for 14 years, she’s one of the most “alive” human beings I’ve ever known. Rich in psychological depth and spiritual understanding, this lady has changed the lives of many. I’ve pondered the lessons this woman’s life and death may have for me.
I don’t believe there’s any topic more anxiety ridden than the idea of death or loss. In fact, the basic premise of Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality. One need only turn on the television for a few minutes before encountering various topics promising some form of elongated life. Multivitamins, face cream that stops aging, and plastic surgery, to just name a few. We humans seem to struggle mightily with the idea of death, of loss, of terminations, or of endings. We balk at them and cry at them. We avoid them, but then we dream about them. Depending on the type of death (or loss), we may become depressed, overwhelmed, avoidant, or fearful. We also might fight bitterness, anger, and loathing, as a result of the loss we’ve been dealt.
In the days since meeting with this beloved professor, I’ve found myself reflecting on several thoughts. First, she was unafraid and showed no bitterness. Confident of her spiritual standing and grateful for the years she lived, this lady exhibited a peaceful acceptance. It was remarkable. Simultaneously, she was also refreshingly honest, stating that saying goodbye to her two children and her husband was going to be “the most difficult things [she] has ever done.” She paused, and then added, “but the pain and hurt is worth it…because it means I became attached. I only hurt this deeply because I have loved deeply.”
I don’t think that it’s ever too soon to think about the meaning of one’s life. Sitting with death, deeply and honestly, has a way of focusing our energies and cleaning our senses. It invites us to think about our relationships, how we spend our time, and how we treat others. Each of you is doing something with your life. Whether it’s buying groceries, sipping coffee, or spending time with those whom you love, I urge you to do it wholeheartedly and with great kindness, knowing that you’re engaging in life, encouraging others to live more fully, and changing the world in the process.