September’s newsletter focuses on dealing with your own mortality, and how doing so can help you live a more stress-free life.
Coming To Terms With Our Mortality
Woody Allen once said, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Is this the way you feel about life and death? Especially the death part? While it’s not always expressed, the families we work with at AgeQuake™, often feel this anxiety about growing older. There’s more they wish to do, and their health, daily activities, living situations and transportation needs can sometimes frustrate them. Our facilitated meeting can help them organize their lives, for the better. While all their problems may not be solved, making concrete plans with the family often reduces fear, concerns and worries about growing older.
Here’s a quote from the book, “The Mathematician’s Shiva”, by Stuart Rojstaczer. Chapter 17, A Russian Funeral: “Americans expect to live forever. I’ve noticed how Americans deal with doctors and hospitals and how they spend their money – sometimes the money of their insurance companies, and sadly, sometimes piles of their own – to try to extend their lives for a minute, hour, day, month, or a year or two. They engage in a ridiculous attempt to deny their mortality.”
From the moment we’re born, our lives are heading toward death. And when we arrive, we can’t say death is a failure. It’s not a failure of the person, not a failure on God’s part, and it’s not a failure of the medical system. It’s a part of the continuum. It’s part of the package that comes with birth. In between birth and death is the life we choose to live. We have an instinct, factory installed, to want to live, and preserve life. And for most of our lives that instinct serves us very well. But at some point, that may change.
It’s very difficult to come to terms with the fact we won’t always be here. Joan Borysenko tells a story from India, in which someone asks, “Of all the world’s wonders, what is the most wonderful? And the character in the story answers, “That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes he himself will die!”
How comfortable are you about thinking about the end? We need to come to terms with our own mortality. And paradoxically when we do that, we can enjoy living more. We develop a sense of gratefulness and understanding, the preciousness of life. Isn’t this what we really want out of our lives? We can learn to reduce much of the energy that goes into worrying about death.
As Ram Das says – death is absolutely safe. Nobody fails at it.
It’s not essential to have come to terms with our mortality, although that would be wonderful. We’re not all at that exalted place. What’s important is to accept where we’re at in the process.
Where are you on the continuum?
Total denial Total acceptance
We can’t will ourselves to be totally accepting, or at least most of us can’t. What we can do is work on getting closer to acceptance on the continuum. Realizing that life is short can help us use our time more wisely, and for eternal good. Take time to number your days by asking, “What do I want to see happen in my life before I die? What small step could I take toward that purpose, today?
No one knows how much time he or she has left. Making the most of your time, being conscious, helping to heal the world, doing good in your life is worth starting, today. I believe this is what our mission on Earth is all about. In my elderhood, I would love to be able to say and believe this:
Thank you lord, I want to thank you lord, for life and all that’s in it.
Thank you for the day and for the hour and for the minute.
I know many are gone, I’m still living on.
I want to thank you lord.
Q. “Our parents don’t want to discuss what will happen if they get sick or hurt and have to go into a hospital, nursing home, or worse.”
- Sometimes they might not understand the importance of advanced directives, or even understand what they are. Maybe they’ve heard about them, but when they try to fill them out, it’s confusing. They may also be a little suspicious of giving someone else the power over them. Often, simply sitting down and having the discussion about these documents can ease their concerns.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Do you understand the purposes of these two documents? Health Care Directives and Durable Power of Attorney?
- Are you confident they haven’t filled out these two documents?
- If you know they haven’t, do you know what their concerns are?
- How would it help you, and them, if these documents were completed?
- Are there things that can be done to help alleviate any concerns your parents, or the siblings might have?
Helpful Tips: Sit down and talk with your parents about your concerns. Maybe a way to begin the discussion is to decide to work on these forms together – for your parents and your own family. You could get copies, along with explanations and instructions, and work on them together.
One advantage of doing this together is that you may better understand your parent’s confusion, or concerns, deciding which choices you might want for yourself. You can find free, or low cost, Health Care Directives from your state, or ones such as Five Wishes.
From the Website: Art of Dying Well www.artofdyingwell.org
Accepting your mortality
Death is an unavoidable part of the cycle of life, yet many of us do everything we can to avoid accepting our mortality. But coming to terms with the inevitability of death can help teach us to live more fully in the here and now. In fact consciousness of our mortality can enable us to cherish every moment of the life we have.
Coming to terms with our mortality is a challenge faced by us all. But accepting death can be hugely problematic. We each have to find our own way to process the reality of dying. But faith can help, as can taking a practical approach.
For example, accepting that life has a finite span focuses the attention, enabling us to take stock of our lives and think about the possibilities still ahead. We may ask ourselves searching questions, such as what impact do we want to make on the world? And what do we want our legacy to be?
Discussing death and mortality
Death is a subject most of us avoid discussing but talking about it can help reposition how we feel about our mortality. We all want a good death, to die well, but what does that actually mean?
Perhaps it’s taking the time to consider what would be the best possible death experience for you. For example, who would you like to be with you? What might be your last wishes? Make the most of now to give full consideration to these questions.
Emotional and spiritual work
Beyond the practical there is emotional and spiritual work to be done to come to terms with the inevitability of death. Thinking about your life ending can be anxiety provoking, so make time for periods of calm, contemplative reflection. This time should help you to see things more clearly, making it easier to take the necessary steps toward living the best version of your life.
Controlling anxiety about dying
Accepting your mortality can also be freeing, as one of the consequences can be making more conscious choices in the present. Indeed, if we can strive to control how anxiety about death impacts upon us, we can avoid potentially negative or destructive behaviour and focus positively on the time we have.
It’s said that to remind himself of the shortness of life, the Italian saint Charles Borromeo kept a human skull on a little table in his house. That might be a bit too much for us today, and yet, the reality is that death can happen at any moment.
Fr Neil McNicholas, author of A Catholic Approach to Dying, says: “The thought that ‘each day you awaken could be the last you have’ could sound very depressing, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Becoming comfortable with the reality of death
“What it means is that the more comfortable we become with the reality of death, and the less we deny it, the more positively attuned we’ll be to the day-to-day things that remind us of our mortality.”
He gives an example: “What kind of send-off do we give our children and spouses when they, or we, leave home in the morning for school or work? Could we, or they, live with the memory of the last thing that was said or done in the tragic event that it actually was the last thing?”
Remembering and ‘memento mori’
The fact is, an awareness of our mortality can lead us to behave differently in the present. In the Middle Ages, the Black Death claimed the lives of about a third of the entire population of Europe. As a result, the catchphrase ‘memento mori’ (remember death) became very well-known and deeply shaped the way people lived their lives.
The popular medieval play Everyman, for example, reminded everyone that the only thing that will be of any value at the end of life are our good deeds.
The importance of living well
Sister Anne Donockley, an Augustinian nun from Cumbria, died of a heart condition in April 2016. Towards the end of her life, she reflected on the importance of living well:
Living your life
“I once saw something where it mentioned that on a coffin there are two dates; the date of your birth, the date of your death and there is a little dash in between the two – the hyphen. The most important of those three things on the coffin is actually the hyphen, representing your life between birth and death.”
Trying to do good
She went on: “I think there is a way of living that prepares you for death. It’s in the sense that you try to do good, to care about people and that you’re focused on others. Then I think you are preparing for death throughout life, really.”
Another major issue with accepting death is that for the majority, death is no longer something that touches our day-to-day lives.
Even just 100 years ago, death was everywhere. Around 1 in 10 people died in childhood. Life expectancy was just 46 for men and 50 for women. And people tended to die at home – with their families – rather than in hospital. But thanks to improvements in public health over the past century, we rarely stare death in the face any more.
Looking more closely at dying
There is something to be said, for getting re-acquainted with death and dying. One of the best ways to do this is to get closer to the process by becoming more involved in the work of a local hospice.
Hospices rely on volunteers to help with their valuable work in caring for the dying. Volunteers undertake a range of tasks, such as serving meals to patients, helping with support groups, driving people to appointments or collecting prescriptions.
Become a hospice volunteer
If you would like to help, there will probably be a structured application and training process. If you are short on time, there are other ways you might get involved in supporting your local hospice.
Whatever your level of involvement, finding out about the work of your local hospice is a great way to do something good, as well as enabling you to understand and become more accepting of your own mortality.
Dying and the Christian tradition
There is, however, a more fundamental reason that we might have trouble coming to terms with death. Within the Christian tradition, death is not considered to be part of God’s original plan. “For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity”, says the biblical book of Wisdom (2:23).
Rather, death is understood to be a result of sin. Seen from this perspective, it’s not surprising that we might have such issues with death. If we were designed for immortality, then it’s only natural for us to fear death – and to have a strong will to live on.
Pope Francis on death and dying
Pope Francis has spoken about this very instinct. He said: “If it is understood as the end of everything, death frightens us, it terrifies us, it becomes a threat that shatters every dream, every promise, it severs every relationship and interrupts every journey.”
Yet he added: “If we look at the most painful moments of our lives, when we have lost a loved one — our parents, a brother, a sister, a spouse, a child, a friend. We realize that even amid the tragedy of loss, even when torn by separation, the conviction arises in the heart that everything cannot be over, that the good given and received has not been pointless. There is a powerful instinct within us which tells us that our lives do not end with death.”
Catholic prayers for the dead and dying
There are specific Catholic prayers in relation to death and dying. Some are intended for a specific point in an individual’s journey, others for after death has occurred for use by family and friends. All should bring relief and some comfort at a very difficult time.
The 18th century saint, Alphonsus Liguori, wrote a whole book about preparing for death.
He said: “It is certain that we shall die; but the time of death is uncertain. God has already fixed the year, the month, the day, the hour, and the moment when you and I are to leave this earth and go into eternity; but the time is unknown to us. All know that they must die: but the misfortune is, that many view death at such a distance, that they lose sight of it.”
Oct. 25-28, 2018
Sage-ing International 2018 Global Conference
Oak Ridge Hotel and Conference Center Chaska, MN.
CALLING ALL ELDERS AND ELDERS TO BE!
Full Conference Program now available here
Day Registration now available! Register here
Calling all elders who aspire to be on a Sage-ing journey and those who serve them to come together at the Sage-ing International 2018 Global Conference: Elder Voices Transforming the World: Our Stories in Action, October 25-28, to stand for the well-being of the future. There will be keynote speakers, presentations, workshops, rituals, interactive sessions, fireside chats, walks in nature, music and dance. Engaging elders from a wide spectrum of cultures and traditions will inspire and unify us as we create greater good for our world. Start imagining how to call on stories from the past, live fully into an insightful present, and activate a transformative new narrative. For more information on the conference, click here. To register for the conference, click here.