In societies where death is considered a natural part of life and a rite of passage, most people tend to be more mindful about the value of every moment and the importance of a good life as well as a good death. In ancient times, when someone began to die, no matter what their age, people gathered around their bed and held vigil. Words of love and forgiveness were expressed. Last wishes were spoken, and the person was sent off to the unknown land behind the veil with dignity and tender care. There was a gentle acceptance to the mourning that followed. Of course, there was pain and grief, but there was acceptance. A lot of cultures and belief systems consider death a rite of passage to another rebirth, therefore celebrating a life in transition.
In our current society, where death is an unacceptable event in the eyes of modern medicine, and is to be voided at all costs, most people do not get to die according to their own wishes. Most are not even asked what their wishes are or how and where they wish to take their final breaths. Some suppress their wishes to appease their loved ones and to ease their angst. Most families are not aware of choices they may have to modify treatments, and extend the quality of their loved one’s life. Most of my patients in hospice preferred dying at home to dying in an ICU or a hospital bed, yet when their family members pleaded with them to keep fighting, and not to “give up”, they headed.
A lot of us are uncomfortable with even hearing what a loved one who is going through a serious illness needs to convey. We feel it will hasten their end, or in reality, that we have to come to terms with our own feelings and fears of letting go.
What if instead, we could actually listen and hold space so that they can impart their wishes for their last days, their funerals or what they need to get done beforehand or want us to do for them after they die? What if we need that one day for ourselves and wish that someone was capable of being there for us?
We cannot always know when it’s our time. People with chronic or terminal illness may have more time to contemplate. What if we start contemplating how we wish to die when we are well? What if we fully live without being afraid of how we will die? What if we tell people we love them, and forgive and be forgiven prior to our looming death?
Family dynamics are never easy. I have witnessed some painful disputes as people gathered around a loved one’s death bed. What if as a part of living a fulfilled life, we can try to solve our differences before we face the last hours?
Joining each other in discussing these issues is paramount during these uncertain times, when so much about our mortality has come to face us. Mindfulness is a key to living fully, and through support we can discuss what our transition may look like and be complete before we make our journey to another realm. Life and death can be equally joyful. Living a full life with gratitude and joy, can make a peaceful death possible. And who doesn’t want that?