I have a pin on my jean jacket with a classic Grim Reaper and it says, "Born to die". As strange as this sounds, I think he is the guy who helps us get to the peaceful, accepting, beatific smile that most of us are shooting for as we prepare to make our exit.
I was speaking at a gathering recently and a man asked, "How do you help a younger person face death? It is so much harder than if they are at the end of a long, satisfying life," His question gave me pause, and I don't think I answered it very well. What I wish I would have said is something to the effect of, "That is where the Grim Reaper comes in."
I think the way to prepare to die at any age is much the same, it is to lose our attachments. Its these attachments that make it difficult to leave this place. I like to picture the Grim Reaper as a large man, like 12 feet tall. He is imposing but not scary, stern but patient and wise. I like the idea that I can curl up inside death. I am no longer in control. He is taking it one step at a time. Death is huge, all encompassing and vast.
He is beckoning with his long bony finger and there is no refusing him. First he shatters your world. He takes away your illusion that you have more time. Its so easy to forget that we are so fragile and that our time is so fleeting. By making your time short he also gives you the gift of seeing your life and priorities crystal clear. Its as if he has a giant sifter and pours your entire life through it, all the people, all the responsibilities, all the worries and shakes them out on your front lawn. There will be things that you no longer consider worthwhile to carry.
Next he takes your energy. Your physical body starts to slow and as you move more slowly you realize you have to decide what things to save your energy for. You lose your attachment to racing around and doing unnecessary things, like keeping your bathroom spotless or staying in a conversation with a narcissist.
Later he comes around and asks for the keys to your office. He takes your job and with it the part of your identity attached to it. This really slows the world down and takes the future with it. You are forced to live in the present maybe for the first time in a long time. There is a gift here too, the simplest things like a good meal, the weather, playing with the dog, your kids, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper become sublime.
Later he comes around and beckons you to handover the passcodes and usernames. Someone else is taking care of the taxes, the financial aid applications, the leaky roof, and the crab grass in the lawn. This in effect makes you a child again. Free to focus on what is starting to appear on the horizon, the next place.
He comes around next for your family members, you no longer have the energy to interact with them. You must say goodbye, but first "Please forgive me, I forgive you, Thank you and I love you." Your hearing is the last sense he will take so you can still revel in their presence but they are receding from you. This is a time when the living can feel abandoned and hurt that the person passing seems to look right thru them. This is part of the process, as the physical body dies, the spiritual body rises.
And finally he comes for your body. And with this last one he frees your soul.
This taking your life one step at a time has the ability to transform you. It gives one the opportunity to feel gratititude for the life they lived and revel in the simple things. He is benevolent because he prepares us to move on. He strips us back to our elemental nature.
I encourage you to create your own personal Grim Reaper. Maybe a kindly older woman in flowing robes, maybe an actual person from our past who will ready us for the next place. Whoever it happens to be make friends with them today. I guarantee that it will make you more fully in your death and thus more fully in your life.
This quote can be attributed to some Zen master, sadly I can't remember which one. The first time I read it, it didn't make sense to me immediately. But as I sat with it a picture of Rob came to mind. He was standing with his back to the lake in Central Park. He is looking up, not exactly skyward but up and he has a smile on his face that I don't recall ever seeing before. It could best be described as beatific which is defined as "imparting holy bliss". The fact that he never had this smile during his life was significant. Rob was someone who took the work of being a good human very seriously, which is odd because he was a deeply funny man. But he carried the weight of responsibility squarely on his shoulders through out his life. And he was a worrier. On his death bed he regretted that he had spent so much of life worrying. So how did he get to be the guy with a beatific smile on his face, seemingly without a care in the world even though it was the last month of his life?
I think the answer lies in the belief that when we know we are dying and time is short there comes an opportunity for deep transformation. It is important to note that it is an opportunity it does not happen automatically. Rob chose to live in the present and be consumed with gratitude for what he had been given in life. He did not want to die but he was able to accept it. The palliative care doctor B J Miller put it another way when he was describing his time in a burn unit after a horrific accident where he was electrocuted. One of the nurses smuggled in a snowball for him, he says, "I cannot tell you the rapture I felt holding the snowball in my hand. The coldness dripping onto my skin, the miracle of it all, the fascination as I watched it melt and turn into water. In that moment just being on any part of this planet in this universe mattered more to me than whether I lived or died. That little snowball packed all the inspiration I needed to both try to live and be OK if I did not. It was a moment of sensuous, asthetic gratification where I was rewarded for just being." I think this is the ground in which a beatific smile can sprout. He goes on to say "There are mountains of sorrow and one way or another we will all kneel there. But so much of living in that shadow comes down to loving our time by way of the senses, by way of the body, the very thing doing the living and dying."
I was companioning an elderly woman who was as sweet as can be. She was tiny and greeted every caretaker that entered her room with a warm hello. She and I became fast friends. She would lean close to me and say "Its a shame we didn't meet 20 years ago, think of the fun we could have had." I looked forward to being at her side as this experience unfolded for her. I was very surprised one day when she grabbed my arm and looked pleadingly into my face and said, "I don't deserve this." I said, "Tell me more." She said, "I don't deserve to die. What did I do to deserve this?" I was speechless. She was 87 had a very loving family and by all accounts had led a life much like many of us. It makes me sad that so many see death as a punishment or something horribly wrong, even at the end of a good life.
One of my favorite quotes on this subject is something to the effect of "The adult afraid of death is not some odd bird, but someone whose culture has not knit them the protective garments to withstand the icy winds of mortality." Our culture is most assuredly not in the business of knitting us cozy cocoons to enter our deaths in a calm and accepting way. We are animals after all. We have completely lost connection with our animal selves who are of the natural world. Think of woodland creatures who go off to some quiet shade under a big oak to quietly slip away under the great big sky. Animals know when their time is here and go off on their own to peacefully exit. There are some cultures of the human kind that have similar death rituals. The Inuit come to mind. Their elders chose when it was their time and headed out onto an ice floe under a midnight sky and drifted out to sea. The contrast between these stories and our own culture are profound. It is as if we have forgotten that we know how to die. We know how to do this.
After my sweet friend passed, I was talking with a nurse at the facility about her feeling that death was a punishment. I asked if he had seen this before. He said, "She did not do her homework. When people come here and they haven't thought about death or prepared for it, they aren't ready for it and they hang on. Some people have done their homework and make a peaceful exit." He went on to tell me that his mother had died when he was 9, right in front of him. He had sat with her dead body for a while before anyone else arrived. He was from somewhere in Africa. He went on to tell me that because of this he had a great fear of dead bodies. He knew he had to face this fear to be comfortable working in the healthcare field as well as face his own eventual mortality. He prepared himself and eventually confronted his fear and moved beyond it. He said we all have to face our own demons in our own way, but if we don't they will still be there for us at the end. His words have been swirling around my head ever since. I want to be clear that I am not blaming my client or anyone who has trouble accepting that they will one day die. But I think it behooves us all to think about it because it will inform the way we live our lives and that is death's greatest gift. What is the homework we have to do around death? How do we go about knitting our own cocoons that make death more acceptable?