June 17, 2018

Making Peace with Death


This article builds on an earlier post, Stop Surviving, Start Living. What better way to stop surviving than to understand and accept what death is?

This is a difficult article to write because it tackles the question each of us struggles with. The topic challenged my determination to keep the blog running like clockwork, and I am now writing late at night. Meeting a deadline, like a true writer.

Death…This is such an emotional topic, that a lot of people refuse to think about it altogether.

The problem is that sooner or later, we have to think about it when someone close to us dies. Reminding us that there’s no avoiding death – we are all prisoners on a death row.

Ever since I was a kid, death was a source of horror. A black hole swallowing up the future, filling me with fear. I am something, and then I become nothing?

I don’t remember where this quote came from, otherwise I would credit it. ‘Life expectancy used to be 40 years plus eternity, and now it’s 80 years plus nothing’. What happens after death is the central question in all traditional religions. Some people accept the concept of afterlife only because it makes them feel better. This is not surprising – death had to terrify us so that we could find the strength to survive. But religion is not the answer for everybody…

The first time the concept of death as a frightening black hole gave ground for me was in the late 80s. There was a lot of public discussion in Russia over death penalty then. I supported capital punishment, until three simple sentences I read instantly converted me. I still remember those sentences to this day:

“Punishment is a social construct. Death is a biological phenomenon. By killing a criminal we are not punishing him. We are helping him escape punishment”

The government seemed to have agreed, as they stopped capital punishment in 1996.

Later on, I came across comparisons of life with a game. I thought then – if life is a game, and we are playing a role/a character – what better metaphor for death than getting out of a game? You’ve spent your time playing and had fun. Good for you – time to sit on the bench.

There’s a school of thought that says that to be OK with your death, you need to find something bigger than you. That way your own life will pale into insignificance and your death won’t be such a big deal. I don’t agree with that. As they would say in Soviet Russia, you don’t find your passion, your passion finds you. Actively searching for a passion will only bring frustration, the same way pursuing happiness does. You may not be a passionate sort of person – does that mean you are doomed? Riding a passion wave over the fears of death may well work, the same way a shock, bigger pain or a painkiller mask the original pain without healing it.

The lasting way to heal the pain of death is to make peace with it. Being OK with one’s death is a process. It’s unlikely that a few words you read today will stop the struggle by themselves – but at least they will sow the seed. Pushing the unpleasant thought away won’t work. You have to work hard at it to come to a conclusion/closure.

One consequence of being OK with your death is that you become OK with the death of others, too. They say you can’t love others unless you learn to love yourself – by analogy, the best way to make peace with the death of other people is to make peace with your own death.

After all, what sense is there in mourning? Why grieve? The dead can’t feel and need no compassion. It’s OK to miss the dead – but not to grieve them. Same way as it’s OK to be happy with who you were born, but not proud.

Another consequence of making peace with death is that you can re-think the ‘virtual’ death – not leaving your mark in the world. We have a set of ideas imprinted on us by the society. “Build a house, plant a tree, father a son”. Why?? Why reduce your life to a desperate struggle to scribble ‘John was here’ on the rock of humanity? Why care if others remember us or not?

And, as you can imagine, working through your fear of death really helps with in-flight turbulence 😉

The ‘selfish gene’ theory says that we are mere pawns played by our genes. It is in the interest of our genes for us to be terrified by death. Not in our interest though, as the fear of death contaminates our life. Isn’t it the time we took the power back from DNA strands and stopped being the slaves of obscure molecular chains?

I’ve made my peace with death. I hope so will you. After all, it makes living a lot easier.

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