You know what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately? Death.
Wait! Don’t stop reading; it’s a fascinating topic, and one many of us shy away from discussing with any real curiosity.
As I start the descent down the shorter side of my life’s path, I can’t help but think about how my life will end, and when it will end.
And what to do with the precious few hours, days, weeks, months, years I have left. Not one of us knows how much time we have left, and that’s a source of anxiety for most of us.
It’s like there’s a great cosmic clock tick-tick-ticking away with our name attached to a time of expiry. And there’s no way for us to find out what that time will be.
Death recently took two notable humans: Dr. Wayne Dyer and Dr. Andrew Sacks— and on the same day—August 30th (well played, Dark Angel)! Both Dyer and Sacks wrote on the topic of a good death, and how planning for a good dying leads to a better life while we are living it.
So, what is a good death, anyway?
A good death can only happen if we are prepared, inasmuch as we can be, for it. We know it will happen, so no sense in hiding from it (as if we could).
Meditate on It
We need to meditate on how we want our ending to go because if we don’t decide, someone else will. We need to discuss death. People close to us need to know our wishes. We need to write it all down—preferably in a legally binding way (will, trust, a power of attorney, all that adult stuff).
Death is front-burner-worthy. The time is now. Not next week or next year, but now.
There are few things as tragic as an early and untimely death where the departed neglected to get their affairs in order. It’s unkind (bordering on cruel), to place the additional burden of sorting through a loved one’s affairs upon the shoulders and hearts of the family members who are grieving the loss.
But most importantly, learning how to die well, pondering a good death, can make the life we are living much richer and satisfying.
I recently had an email conversation with one of my favorite Buddhist and meditation teachers, Josh Korda. Josh delivers the Dharma with a healthy dose of western psychology and humor from his very tattooed body. He’s the presiding teacher at Dharmapunx NYC and a visiting teacher at Zen Care and Against the Stream, as well as a retreat leader, podcaster, etc.
In our conversation, I asked Josh to share his thoughts with me on a good death—what it is, why it matters, and how it can inform the way we live.
Josh told me that he’s been making hospice visits to a close friend and that he’s taught at a hospice chaplaincy-training program (Zen Care) for the last five years, so the topic is, he said, “always very much in the forefront of my thoughts.”
He suggested that to live a fully authentic life; every significant choice people make should be evaluated against the fact that they will die. And that, “death is that which gives our actions their meaning: without realizing each endeavor is undertaken from a dwindling resource—our time alive—each action has little meaning; value only accrues when one understands what we are.”
Of course, one’s death is so fundamentally destabilizing to the mundane, over-scheduled mind that many try to banish it from consideration. All this means is that we make choices that, later on, facing aging and mortality, that we regret, such as prioritizing work, bills, avoiding conflict, fame, securing reputations over real connections with other people.
Some people fall into the naïve belief that to think about one’s death, to connect with others who are dying might bring about one’s death quicker. To banish death from our thoughts only means choosing fantasy over life, which means our lives are entirely inauthentic, vapid.
This is a common refrain—the underlying superstition many people share that by talking about death they will hasten their own. What a sad commentary on a culture that, in general, handles the topic of death so ineptly. We waste the finite time we have on a fascination with celebrity culture and other junk-food entertainment to distract us from what is going on right now, in our actual life that is waiting for us to live it—to fully, presently participate in it, instead of just existing in autopilot mode.
The truth of death, however, is not an idea, but one that has to be experienced—by connecting with those facing mortality. Death only reveals itself by encountering a radical, unavoidable, lived experience that breaks through all the mechanisms we’ve constructed to shield ourselves from the awareness of mortality: advertising, consumer culture, capitalism—all thrive on keeping our heads tucked in the sand; to prioritize consuming life is to live as one has endless guaranteed time.
Perhaps the clearest wisdom comes from the thoughts of the dying articles by hospice nurses: they relate how people don’t die wishing they’d spent more time at work or ‘playing it safe’ or ‘sticking with unsatisfactory relationships.’ People die wishing they’d spoken honestly, worried about the future less, worked less, taken more creative risks and connected with those who are emotionally tolerant. And that is the way we should live.
On the most fundamental level, we know these things. We know that people don’t die wishing they had worked longer hours. That people on their deathbeds regret not saying no to things that they didn’t want to do and yes to a life that would have been riskier, perhaps, but infinitely more fulfilling.
If we know this, why don’t we wake up and live this way?
Why do we still worry about our thighs, what the neighbor thinks, or how many likes we have on the cat video we just posted on Facebook? Are we so numb to the truth of our mortality, or in denial about it, that we choose not to live full out while we are here? Or maybe it’s like the ostrich with its head in the sand—if we don’t think about it, it won’t happen to us.
So, here’s the deal about a good death and learning how to die with dignity in a way that doesn’t keep us in a place of fear and how that alone will help us live the life we want to live: I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t have ten steps you can take to integrate this mindset into your life right now. The method is so simple it defies the typical bullet point list. But, my friend, simple is not always easy.
You decide that life matters and that it, you, deserve to live, fully expressed, not as some semi-comatose skin bag. You examine death; you meditate on it. You talk to friends and family. You choose your life, however long you have left, by firing the autopilot and taking the wheel.
Or, you don’t. Instead, you continue as usual, because you have all the time in the world, right?