Making Peace With Death

A favorite reading this time of year for many Unitarian Universalists comes from religious educator Sophia Fahs, who wrote, “For so the children come, and so they have been coming. Always in the same way they come, born of the seed of man and woman. No angels herald their beginnings. No prophets predict their future courses. No wisemen see a star to show where to find the babe that will save humankind. Yet each night a child is born is a holy night. Fathers and mothers—sitting beside their children’s cribs feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning. […] Each night a child is born is a holy night—a time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshipping.” This is what Sophia Fahs says, and in this way, she reminds us about our Unitarian Universalist First Principle: That all people have inherent worth and dignity. Birth—any birth—is a revealer of this mystery, and no angels are needed, no prophets, no stars. Our worth and dignity is INHERENT, and with every birth, the point is made again and again.

This morning, I would have us consider how this is also true about death. How it is a revealer of the mystery of inherent worth and dignity as much as birth. Death, like birth, is an integral part of what it means to be human, and it is from our simple humanity that our inherent worth and dignity flows. Not just from part of our humanity, but from all of it. The entire paradox of our being, which is a being-towards-death. “For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die.” One time takes nine months and involves a lot of hard pushing coming into the world; and the other time involves its own kind of hard work, much pain and vulnerability in the leaving. Both times tell a story about the drama of life and its basic value, which nothing can take away.

All people have inherent worth and dignity. Affirming this fully requires us to make our peace with death, allowing us, in turn, to discover how it is that even this fearsome part of our existence can be a teacher, and lead us into dimensions of meaning that cannot be fathomed in any other time of life.

But first we have to make our peace with it. That has to come first.

And how do we do that, when death in our culture is taboo? Sociologist Goeffrey Gorer says that the subject of death has become as unmentionable today as sex was in Victorian times. “Death is the last and greatest taboo,” adds psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and this is evident above all in the clear discomfort people have when they find themselves in the presence of one who is terminally ill, or near death. Culture spends plenty of time telling us all about how to defy death, and presents multiple options for life extension. Culture whispers in our ear, “Age is a treatable condition,” and it agrees wholeheartedly with writer W. Somerset Maugham when he says, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” That’s our culture. It tells us all about how to handle ourselves during this occasion and that occasion; but as for the occasion of death, our culture is no help. Death is taboo. So we don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. The note to someone who is dying never gets written, the call never gets made, the visit is repeatedly put off. Or we do write the note, we do make the call, we do take the time to visit, but we end up isolating them even further, and intensifying their pain. They want to share their sadness, or their fear, but the anxiety is too much for us, and we shut them down, saying, “Oh, you’ll be fine. Don’t talk that way. Think positive. Try harder.” They want to know that they are still the person they always were to us—that in essentials, we still love them—but we may fidget in their presence, talk to others in the room like they are not there, stand or sit a little too far away. They want a taste of normalcy in the midst of all the craziness—talk about the weather, talk about politics, talk about neighborhood gossip—but we don’t follow their lead and decide instead to force a heavy existential conversation about life, the universe, and everything. They simply want to be seen in all their wholeness and fullness, but we act as if the only valid thing about them is their dying, we trap them with our concern, we oppress them with our compassion. We just don’t know our manners—because for our culture, the source of manners, death is taboo.

We just don’t know any better. Death has become for us, today, unknown territory. “Most of us,” says health journalist Virginia Morris, “reach our thirties and forties without ever having seen a death or helped someone through a terminal illness. We may not have even heard about anyone’s death in great detail—the gradual decline, the fear, the treatments, the pain, or the intimacy that can occur in the final stage of life.” That’s what she says, and it is no help whatsoever to see actors pretending to die on TV, or in the movies—whether perishing in some violent way, or dying yet still looking beautiful and in control. This is not real death. Death is messy. How do you make your peace with something you aren’t even directly familiar with? Death has disappeared, for the most part, into hospitals, nursing homes, and other similar institutions, in sharp contrast to only a short hundred years ago, when death usually happened at home, under the care of family, friends, neighbors, and often some spiritual guide, such as a minister or priest. People knew death back then, but now, not so much.

All of this only intensifies our natural fear of death. Fear grows in darkness. Fear feeds on ignorance. It becomes seemingly impossible to talk about. But this is exactly what we need to do, and sooner rather than later. Says Virginia Morris, “Hanging on the edge of a precipice, engulfed by terror, is not the time or place to learn about emergency rock-climbing procedures; you have to learn them before you start the expedition. Likewise, we have to learn something about death now, while we are still healthy. […] No one said it would be easy. But by bringing death out into the open, by witnessing it, talking about it, learning about it, and trying in whatever way we can to accept it as an inevitable part of our lives, we can be better prepared, we can make better decisions when the time comes…” That’s what Virginia Morris says, and it is in connection with the issue of end-of-life decisions that the need to face our fears sooner rather than later is particularly crucial. During end-of-life care, doctors take their cues from their patients. If we have not worked through our fears, we will freeze up at the bedside of one we love; and while they might have asked that we spare them from any aggressive intervention procedures, when we are there at the bedside, full of our fears, overwhelmed by practical issues and considerations we had never once tried to think about before, we can find ourselves making decisions that will cause us regret later. In our pain we may hear ourselves saying to the doctor, “I don’t want to hear anything bad. I want you to fix her.” In our pain and confusion, for which we are so unprepared, we don’t know when enough is enough, we don’t know when to let go.

This is horrible. There has got to be a better way.

Which brings us to our reading from earlier, about the man voluntarily sitting down on his own grave. Doing this NOT with an attitude of morbidity but with one of honest affirmation, and as a result finding his life here and now deepened and enriched. It is a marvelous demonstration of living into our Unitarian Universalist First Principle, which, given everything I have said so far, is clearly a countercultural principle, calling us to reject culture’s taboo on death, calling us to go against the grain, calling us to refuse holding death at arm’s length, calling us to proactively prepare for the inevitable.

It begins by turning on the light.  If fear grows in darkness, turn on the light. To this end, I highly recommend reading Virginia Morris’ book, entitled Talking About Death. It was inspired by her experience of her father’s death, just three months after giving birth to her own son. At one point she says, “When I was pregnant, I studied, practiced, and tried to imagine labor and delivery. I talked about it with friends, heard about their experiences, and got untold amounts of advice. But when my father had a life-threatening illness, I did nothing of the sort. I didn’t look things up or ask questions. My family didn’t even acknowledge—not in any meaningful way—that my father was going to die until he was almost gone.” This is what Virginia Morris says, and in great part, it’s the ironic contrast between her thorough preparation for her son’s birth and complete lack of preparation for her dad’s death that spurred her on to writing the book. When both rites of passage are equally momentous—both a part of what it means to be human—why should practicing for one be considered prudent while practicing for the other be shameful? Among other things, the book explores the up-close reality of dying, as well as suggestions for enabling a truly good death. It talks about how advance directives (as in a living will and a power of attorney for health care) are absolutely important but not sufficient in themselves to address all the complex and emotionally wrenching choices that arise when a life is in the balance. It even looks at the issue of manners I touched on earlier, how to be a truly comforting presence to one who is dying, as well as to his or her family. It’s about turning on the light. “The thought of death will always fill us with dread … but the fear is less paralyzing, less blinding, when we have knowledge…”

Turn on the light. Do this, and then next of all, talk. Talk about death with your loved ones. Talk about it when you are healthy, so that the subject won’t be so hard to broach when you are sick. Talk about it so as to clear away any vagueness and confusion about your end-of-life wishes, or the wishes of another. This is what Virginia Morris did with her mom, after her dad died. She says, “My mother always said that she wants to be ‘unplugged’ when she’s ‘at that point,’ and she has even said that she would like to be ‘done in’ if she is ever ‘like that.’ But the two of us never ventured much beyond these comments, and [I realized soon enough that I needed to clarify things.] So the two of us talked, and talked, and talked, and we discovered a number of things along the way. First of all, I realized that my mom, like many people, is not afraid of respirators and feeding tubes as much as she is afraid of being a burden. She does not want her children, or anyone else for that matter, to have to care for her. […] That was what she was thinking about when she said, ‘Do me in.’ [But] then I asked her about Dad’s death. Did she view that as a burden? Did she see his care as a drain? Would it have been easier if he had taken a vial of pills, which he had actually stored away for just such an occasion? No, she said, of course not. We talked about what caring for him had meant for us, what was hard about it and what was rewarding, and if there were any aspects of it we wished we hadn’t had to do, which there weren’t. We agreed that his care had not been a chore for us, but an honor and a privilege, a gift that has stayed with us.” That’s the conversation between Virginia Morris and her mom, and I have quoted it at length because it demonstrates how a willingness to talk and talk and talk can make all the difference. Without it, Virginia Morris would never have known that the real problem for her mom was not so much certain medical procedures as it was the fear of being a burden, and as for her mom: she might never have connected the dots in her mind, might never have realized that her children caring for her would be just as important for them as was caring for their dad. A gift. A time of giving and forgiving and letting go. We need these realizations as well, with the people we love. We need these kinds of conversations too.

Turn on the light, talk it out, and then do this: open your heart to your own death. Invite the thought of death in. It will surely bring sadness. Absolutely. The thought of all the loss, the thought of leaving; how this will impact the people depending on us, how the party will go on without us. Inviting the thought of death will bring sadness, and it will also trigger fear: fear of losing control, fear of the unknown, the fear of the caterpillar who cannot possibly know ahead of time the great changes in store for him, and what comes next. Sadness, fear, depression—and yet, our will to live nevertheless remains. We foresee the end, and the end gives meaning to all that comes before. It is as philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote: “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” To the degree we allow ourselves to live with the thought of death, to sit on our very own grave and see ourselves from that perspective, our understanding and appreciation of what we have and of the life that is before us grows.

“I have done this many times now,” says Virginia Morris. “I imagine how I might respond if I were told that I had a terminal illness. I think about how I would react if I were caring for my husband, refusing further treatment for my mother, saying goodbye to a friend. I think how I might feel, whether I could act, and what I might regret. I walk through the process, and as I do, I sob pitifully into my pillow. Then I lie still, exhausted but not sleepy, staring out the skylight above my bed at the darkness beyond. I roll onto my side and see the bright red numbers on my clock. Then I creep quietly down the hallway, going first into one room and then another, so that I can gaze upon my sleeping children. I stroke their soft hair, listen to their gentle breathing, pull up the covers, kiss their cheeks, and draw in their sweet scents. Then I go back to bed, oddly fulfilled. Cold from the trek, I snuggle close to my husband, feel his warmth, love him enormously, and fall asleep.” That’s what she says. The end gives meaning to all that comes before. Meaning throughout the lifespan, from first to last. Even in the face of death, people’s worth and dignity remains, is inherent, IS.

Making peace with death. Turning on the light, talking things out, opening our hearts, and then this, finally: trust. Affirming our inherent worth and dignity by trusting the rhythm and flow of the life we are given, woven seamlessly into the larger life of the natural world. The natural world holding us in its embrace, and we love ourselves even as we love it. We see nature as a revelation of the sacred, and we see it in ourselves. “I am not ready to die,” says Unitarian Universalist poet May Sarton,

But I am learning to trust death
As I have trusted life.
I am moving
Toward a new freedom
Born of detachment,
And a sweeter grace—
Learning to let go.

I am not ready to die,
But as I approach sixty
I turn my face toward the sea.
I shall go where tides replace time,
Where my world will open up to a far horizon
Over the floating, never-still flux and change.
I shall go with the changes,
I shall look far out over golden grasses
And blue waters….

There are no farewells.

Praise God for His mercies,
For His austere demands,
For His light
And for His darkness.