Death is a vast subject. It has been of cosmic significance to our species since we first discovered we could reflect on life. One could say death is one of the five greatest human questions. Some make the list this way:
- Who am I?
- Where do I come from?
- Why am I here?
- Where am I going?
- To whom—or to what—am I accountable?
Even if these questions do not arouse interest for you, the fourth question—where am I going?—is quite difficult to ignore. For, in the end, the nature of death is a question we all face.
How do we live with our own mortality? How do we encounter the reality that we must die? And if our souls do survive death, if we experience a life review where we see what we have done and how we have lived with a kind of impartial cosmic judgment, what does that tell us about how to live the rest of our lives—and what should truly matter to us now?
There is no doubt that we must die. But we have a considerable amount of choice in how we die, where we die, and how much—if any—suffering we will experience. We also have a great deal to say about how much the way we die will affect the people we love and care about.
Death has been at the heart of all the great religious and philosophical traditions. If we are willing to face our deaths consciously, we can often transform the experience for ourselves and those we care about. But our deaths may not go as well as we would wish—and as well as they could—if we don’t take the time to prepare for it.
It’s an interesting paradox. Many people devote hundreds of hours to researching cancer therapies—which may or may not make much difference—and virtually no time in preparing for death—which can make a very great difference indeed. Why? Because they don’t want to think about death or are afraid that somehow if they do think about death it means they have given up the fight for life. Quite the contrary, in my experience. If you don’t think about death it becomes the unconscious elephant in the room and can suck energy and vitality from living. If you do think about it, and come to your own terms with the practical as well as the mental, emotional, and spiritual questions—you often have more energy for life itself.
Many people don’t have a safe place to talk about death and dying. We have devoted much time to exploring death in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats for four decades. And we have woven that insight into CancerChoices.org. I encourage you to read the sections of CancerChoices.org devoted to death and share them with your loved ones.
See links to helpful resources in our Dying Well handbook ›
We also welcome you to join our sister program Healing Circles Global’s virtual circles on Death and Dying: Impermanence and the Gift of Life ›
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