I RARELY meet people who see death the way I do, not as something to judge or fear, but simply another moment, another experience as a part of LIFE. I saw this on CNN.com today and that’s what sparked this particular blog, because, as expressed, I have an unlikely kin in how I view death in the person of Jeff Probst, yep, the host of “Survivor”. His quote is in regard to the recent death of a former participant, Jennifer Lyon, who died of cancer at the age of 37:
“If I learned anything from Jenn it is this: Don’t be afraid to ask someone how they are truly feeling about dying,” Probst says. “Don’t shy away from the scary parts of death. They need someone to talk to about what is going on inside their head. Most importantly, encourage them to let go of the expectations of others and give them permission to do what is right for them, even if it means letting go.”
I had almost this exact experience a few years ago involving my mother. I was up in Seattle, housesitting for an acquaintance. She was at home in San Diego with the rest of my brothers and sisters and all of their kids. My mom sometimes (not sure how often, because I think she tends to hide the severity from us) has some irregular heartbeats that have been checked and tested and concluded to not be dangerous. However, during this occassion, she was having some accompanying chest pains, so her doctor felt like it would be prudent to do an angiogram, a visual inspection of her heart valves to make sure there was no blockage. If they DID find some blockage, they were going to go ahead and do an angioplasty (to clear the blockage) on the spot. If this happened, there was a slight chance, approximately 1 in 100, that she could die during the procedure. I asked her how she felt about that possibility and she said she was afraid.
Now this is where MOST conversations among “normal” people would end, with me saying something comforting and staying away from going any deeper. Of course that’s not me, so I asked “what, specifically, are you afraid of?” Some of you might be thinking “what a dumb question! That’s obvious, she’s afraid of being dead!” But there are dozens, if not hundreds, of specific reasons why someone would be afraid of dying, and I didn’t know what hers was. Take your guess as to what she said. Ready?
“I’m afraid that my grandkids will be sad that I am gone.”
Did you guess right? No? That’s why I asked the question. So I asked the next question, and then next and we talked in depth about her fears, eventually finishing with them in a completed way, and then I asked “Are there some things you would like me to do, to take care of if you don’t wake up?” And then we talked about anything she could think of in that regard also: what songs she wanted played at her funeral, (like this one from one of my favorite musicians, Paul Svenson):
that she would like me to clean up her room and the garage before the funeral, certain things she wanted to be given to certain people and she wasn’t sure she had included them in the latest version of her will. When we were done I asked “So how do you feel now?” And she answered, in a much more chipper way “Much better! I’m not afraid anymore!”
I asked her if any of the other kids were talking to her this way, and she said they were not. They would just ask if there was anything they could do and then sort of be quiet. They were afraid that talking to her about the possibility of dying would make her more frightened, but in fact, just the opposite was true. The more she was able to discuss her feelings, the less afraid she was.
Seems totally counterintuitive, but Jeff hit it right on the head: don’t be afraid to ask about these things with the person involved! Even if you are uncomfortable at first, take the chance, knowing that you can often help the person more this way than by avoiding the subject! Not only that, but you might find that working through your own feelings and reactions surrounding this will actually help you be more easy with yourself on the subject of dying.
One last thought on the subject of dying. I got the chance to sit in on the opening of the Calm Amid Chaos program at The Option Institute (for more specific info on this workshop, check here: http://www.option.org/programs:calm-amid-chaos,16 ). During the free-flowing opening discussion, Bears (Barry Neil Kaufman, co-founder of OI) asked the group “how and when are you going to die?” Some people were uncomfortable with the question, others stated clearly that they couldn’t know that and, in fact, didn’t WANT to know. Others, like me, LIKED the idea of deciding when and how we were going to die. Who knows if it will come true or not, but I find it a very sweet feeling and a comforting thought to be able to visualize that moment for myself. Again, I’m just shocked at the turnaround from being so constantly terrified of dying to now having a clear and gentle picture of what I want my death to look like. So what are the when and hows for me? Well…
The date is July 22, 2050. Ahhhhh, nice! In looking this up, it’s on a Friday, my favorite day of the week (except during football season!). I will be 87 years old. We will be at The Big House in Montana (the one in the photo is actually for sale, so if you’d like to buy it (here: http://www.eaglebend.com/mls/index.html , see MLS# 279955) and gift it to us, you’ll have your own suite always available for you!), during a week when all of the family and extended family are in town and staying with us for fun and fellowship. I get up in the morning and, after breakfast, take the grandkids, nieces, nephews, etc., down to the river to give them some more lessons in fly fishing. We all have lunch together at the big tables lined up under the trees in the backyard, between the house and the river. Good food, great friends. After lunch, my sweet Mary and I go up and snuggle on the porch swing and look out at the water passing by, and listen to the sound of dishes being washed and quietly pinging into each other and of the laughter of the children running and playing in the house and the big yard. And with my arms around the love of my life, I take one last look around, and close my eyes and I’m off to whatever is next. Of course if it’s up to me, heaven will be just like this, because I believe this IS heaven!
What about you? How comfortable are you with thinking about your own mortality? When and how would you like to die if you can make it up any way you want?