March 8, 2014

Healthy Perspectives on Death Allow Us to Enjoy Today More Fully.


Many of us have hearty doses of anxiety and dread when it comes to thinking about death, whether it be our own or that of a loved one. This fear is wired into evolution in order to keep us safe and healthy.

An example of our hard-wired alarm systems is the flight or flight response that we are born instinctively with. This intuitive tool is imperative to our survival during emergent situations.

Nonetheless, death is an inevitable part (for all living creatures) of exiting our lives on this earth—um, well not completely (an interesting aside):

“One can survive everything nowadays, except death, and live down anything, except a good reputation.”

~ Oscar Wilde

Not so fast, Oscar. A more applicable quote about one astounding immortal creature, the Turritopsis, might be:

“I eat death threats for breakfast .” ~ Miriam Defensor Santiago

Certain species of jellyfish can live forever, as long as they have sustenance and are kept safe. It used to be that the only things that were certain were change, death and taxes.  Well, we can now remove death from our list, as there are some species of jellyfish that are immortal.

Yes, it’s true! Do your own search if you don’t believe me—just Google immortal jellyfish.

These creatures are likened to a chicken that gets old and then turns into an egg, only to begin again. And so it [life] continues with this intriguing creature that blows my mind.

Of course we want to live as long and healthily as we can, and when I ponder living forever like a jellyfish, it really isn’t all that appealing to me.

What I am guessing is that premature death is what most people are actually the most afraid of. This makes a lot of sense, as tragic and senseless deaths seem to be the ones that are the hardest to grasp the rhyme or reason for and thus are harder to cope with. It would seem that these are the deaths that account for most of the fear that people hold on to surrounding this topic.

On the other hand, I believe that it is when a good and fruitful kind of living ceases to exist, for either ourselves or for other people or pets who we love, we can more easily make peace with and accept the situation. Death can even become a blessing at times when there is suffering involved.

In my experience, it has been good to prepare my thinking regarding death by perceiving it in a neutral light. This has helped me to lessen any angst concerning my outlook during my everyday life on what is eventually certain to happen when life ends.

Once we accept that death is unavoidable and natural, we can go on the best we can in making peace with the process. And peace can come in many forms—religious or faith based beliefs, spiritual ideas concerning death, etc.

My soul’s truth is that I have always viewed death as a natural process that didn’t scare me. I once took a psychology class and found out just how unusual my views apparently are:

During an exercise, the professor asked the class to make a life-line across the page of the ups and downs of life, making the high points of the line for good times and events and low points for the bad. We had to do this from birth to death and label all of the peaks, valleys, spikes and dips, along with their durations correlating to our age at the time of each life episode.—Think births, deaths of loved ones, graduations, marriages, etc.

It was an interesting lesson and as we were working, my professor strolled around the room, checking in on our progress. When she got to my desk she stopped immediately. She asked if I could explain my life line as she had been teaching for 28 years and had never seen one even close to mine.

She explained that most people have birth as their highest point on their lines, and she had certainly never seen one where old age and death were at the highest points. She then asked me to come to the front of the room and explain my line to everyone. I was mortified, but got up and made my way up to the front of the classroom.

All eyes were on me and I felt emotionally naked as I peeled back the layers of the onion that was my all-inclusive self, as I spoke. And this is what I had to share:

Birth was fairly low on my line as I couldn’t remember it, but wasn’t at the bottom as I was happy to have joined the world.  There were the ups and downs of achievements, joys and losses that had happened so far and those that I predicted were to happen. My line zigzagged and wove up and down with the occasional spike, dip or plateau.

When I got near to the end of my line (so to speak), I explained that the very lowest point was where my husband died, since I knew that statistically women lived longer then men. And the line bottomed out for a while after that, due to grief over my loss, and then I explained the big rise in my life-line.

The upswing was for when I got my autonomy back and could do whatever I wanted and go back to living alone and spending time with friends and family only when I wished to. I have always secretly been a bit of an introvert.

I was shaking at this point, feeling so raw and exposed, but continued on.

I told to what felt at the time like an audience of a million (when in actuality it was only about 40 people), that the highest point in my line was death because by then, I would want a new adventure. I spoke about how I wanted to die in my own small cottage surrounded by pitted fruit trees.

I envisioned myself picking some peaches and making a pie which I would then set onto the windowsill to cool. I would then take a nap and fall to sleep with the sweet smell of anticipation of that slice of homemade pie and die in my sleep. This would be when my blissful adventure after a lifetime of a confusing and contradicted, yet magnificent time on earth, would start anew.

I was so stunned about having shared the most private of my beliefs that I don’t remember what happened afterwards. I suppose, I made my way back to my desk and shrunk into my seat.

Fast forward to the present, and all of my predictions have come true up until this point in my life. I am happy to be married to my soul mate and to have three children whom I adore. And, yes, there have also been the ups and downs that I foresaw so long ago, but those are just as certain as death, if not more, and are certain to occur frequently throughout life.

I think that making a life-line is a worthwhile tool for anyone, as it helps put things in perspective and see where you are with your ideas surrounding many important life topics.

Each of us is born with and then comes to believe different ideas concerning death and what may or may not lie in store for us after it occurs. But, when it comes down to it, we all need to receive each new day as a gift, as we never know when our time on this beautiful earth might end.

I feel that the take home message is that getting past the fear of death will help us enjoy what we have now in much fuller and richer ways.


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Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons

Photo: elephant archives

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