Growing up in a small town in the Midwest during the nineteen fifties, my ideals were formed before I was smart enough to protest overmuch. I learned that my parents were to be respected and my teachers were always right. I also learned that confrontation was bad and that I should go along to get along. In this same vein, I learned that if I wanted to keep my friends and remain an upstanding citizen, there were three things that I must never, ever talk about in public…..politics, religion and death.
This culture instilled in most of us growing up at that time a deep respect for our elders and an acquired ability to hold our tongue…both virtues in today’s disrespectful, outspoken landscape. On the other hand, through the years, I found that both politics and religion could be discussed openly and without malice if done so with an open and/or curious mindset. Death, however, in the western world has increased its status as a forbidden topic in recent years. In his book The Loneliness of Dying (1985), Norbert Elias states that one of the failures of developed societies is the tacit and early isolation of the aged and the dying, and consequently the removal of death from everyday consciousness. And Patricia Lysaght in her article entitled “Visible Death: Attitudes to the Dying in Ireland” (1995) offers that avoidance and denial are the hallmarks of attitudes to death in the secular, developed society of the Western world in the twentieth century.
Not only do most folks in the United States want to avoid any discussion about death, but many actively deny its inevitability. Talk instead revolves around how many surgeries one has had and how many pills one takes to remain alive and active. Note that I am not suggesting that prescription medications are bad and/or that needed surgeries to improve life should be avoided. What I am saying is that if we do not acknowledge and accept death as the end stage of life, then we will fail to prepare ourselves both psychologically and spiritually for this final journey and sadly, we will also miss out on the joy of each precious, limited day.
The truth is that human beings tend to take for granted everyday items that are in abundance, but simultaneously treasure and hold in high esteem the rare or limited item. If death is not talked about—or even worse, not thought about-- then life becomes limitless and thus….undervalued and unappreciated. On the other hand, if death could become a collective topic of conversation, then perhaps through the realization that our lives are limited….each of us would make positive changes in the way that we live each day. This theory is supported by a study done at Stanford University with terminal cancer patients (2007). Psychotherapist Irwin D. Yalom found that patients made the following changes after they were diagnosed with this dreaded disease.
- A rearrangement of life’s priorities--trivializing the trivial
- A sense of liberation—choosing not to do things that they didn’t want to do
- An enhanced sense of living in the immediate present, rather than postponing life until retirement or some other point in the future
- A vivid appreciation of the elemental facts of life—the changing seasons, the wind, falling leaves, the last Christmas, and so forth
- A deeper communication with loved ones than before the crisis
- Fewer interpersonal fears—less concern about rejection, greater willingness to take risks than before the crisis
These patients were forced to face the reality that death is inevitable, but what a gift they received! Each day became limited and thus….precious. Priorities became crystal clear and with that clarity came the courage to discard the petty and insignificant and to concentrate on the important moments of life.
Fortunately healthy individuals don’t have to wait until they are diagnosed with a terminal illness to re-evaluate their lives…to separate the meaningful from the superfluous and thus prepare to die with dignity and a sense of purpose in a life well-lived. This evaluation can be done with a simple exercise. Take one day and pretend that it is your last day on earth. Do your priorities change? Do you treat loved ones differently? What becomes most important to you?
I challenge each of us to look at death with new eyes…not as something to be avoided in polite conversation, but instead to be embraced so that the journey to this inevitable ending is filled with the joy of each precious day and death is met with no regrets….with fulfillment…and for all who believe in life after death….a new beginning.