It happened one day ― I am no longer sure exactly when. It was simply there, this feeling or inner understanding of my calling to counsel the grieving and the dying. Since that time, I have been engaged with the topics of death, dying and grief.
It became clear to me that we all understand that we will die one day, but in spite of this we hardly ever regard the topic of this inevitable event for consideration. When was the last time you truly contemplated your mortality?
We never know when our death will come. It can appear at any time, and yet we go to sleep each night assuming we will wake up the next day. For many of us, there will be a next day. But some of us will encounter death in the night, having never really reckoned with the subject.
Perhaps some might say, “of course I know that death is a part of life and obviously belongs to the course of human existence…”. Unfortunately, these statements are often just unconsidered wisdom, and we go through our lives as if we were immortal. What if we were to act on the insight that death is the completion of our lives and we are inherently prepared to deal with it?
Sogyal Rinpoche has advised that “we should contemplate death when we are happy or inspired”. When we really take this advice to heart and begin to consider it, then we are able to put our priorities in order. The sooner we start this process, the more time we will have to live completely. With a view towards our own death, we can reflect upon what is really important to us. This realization will change what we experience in our lives. Some helpful questions might be: “What can I do so that my life feels complete when it is over?” “What would I have liked to achieved and realized by the end of my life?” “What is a source of energy in my everyday life, in my relationships?” “What impedes me from realizing those things for my own life and those things that are important to my loved ones?” Be honest with yourself, because this is your opportunity to eliminate from your life that which is inessential.
It seems that a integrated view of human existence has disappeared from our life- and social- systems. The tendency to fragment and compartmentalize different aspects of life has grown since the Industrial Age. For every activity there is a specialized space. Our tasks are delegated to specialists, from health care specialists in retirement homes to specialized funeral services and beyond.
Is it a malady of current times that many of the dying are left alone in their fear and loneliness?
Let us finally grasp that we live as a part of an infinite network of connectedness. We are bound to the entire world—think of our ancestors, our parents, our descendants, our friends and of all those things around us that we could not live without like air and sustenance. The network of our connectedness spans from the past through the present and to the future, and it runs through our entire lives. In fact, we exist because of these connections, and, in this way, one’s life and death share a unified energy.
Is it not our relationships and love of all beings the source of meaning and depth in our lives?
In our lives today we try to separate things that in reality cannot be separated: spirit, body, soul and birth, life and death. Many terminally ill people are housed in institutions because a network of care is not available in the home. Often it is this absence of social contact that brings about the physical death itself. When someone must leave their familiar space, the place where their soul was at home, then they often lose a sense of security and belonging. Being part of the fabric of a community and the experience of a continued purpose in life through conversations with friends are aspects that often disappear with the sudden change of place. What is our response to this practice as a society? “We have secured a good place where they can be cared for; we have our own responsibilities to fulfill.” No one has the time (or perhaps better put: no one takes the time) to really process and notice what is happening to those affected by this system.
Instead, we chase apparently more important goals that are related to business and consumption. We do not even notice that we have become alienated from our own sense of self. How can we begin to notice that we have lost the social proximity to the important/meaningful people in our lives? Somewhere on the path of our social development we have lost our courage and willingness to serve others. When death is outsourced, families no longer have an experience of dying and death. In the past, death was embedded into the social environment. The experience of dying was shared by the entire family. In fact, this shared time was often experienced by one’s innermost circle as one of the consummate human encounters.
Even when we do not have a large family in the conventional sense, we humans need each other and are bound to one another. The community can offer the dying and the bereaved great support. A social network can carry us and help us feel connected even during experiences of death. Have you ever considered that death is a part of your future?
How can we encourage the dying to remain in the home, their caretakers to be a real part of their lives, and make those affected visible once again? The extended family hardly exists anymore; life is more complex. But when just one family member or friend comes forward and says “I am ready”, followed by a neighbor who says “I want to be there for you”, then there are already two who are willing to affect change! There are some great examples in history where, through the principle of “serving each other”, projects were carried out that have changed many people’s lives for the better. In our communities we can achieve so much more. We can all do something for one another. Each one of us, no matter in what place we find ourselves, can be there for others. Every contribution counts. Let us try the following each day: do something for ourselves, which in turn can become something for our families, something for our world, something for the universe. If we just make a small contribution everyday, change is possible.