During the holidays I visited with a friend who is dying. She has had cancer for the entire time I have known her, almost ten years now. She isn’t in hospice, so you could say that she is not actively dying. She is still receiving chemo, still expecting to live for a year or two. We sat by the fire in her home, beautifully decorated for the holidays by loving friends. We talked of ordinary things and yes, occasionally about death. I have no idea when I will see her again.
This could be said of all the friends I visited during the holidays: “I visited with my friends who are dying.” I have no idea when or if I will see them again. For we are all dying and we do not know when the appointed hour will come.
The poet Anne Hillman writes,
We look with uncertainty
Beyond the old choices for
To a softer, more permeable aliveness
Which is every moment
At the brink of death;
Moving from one year to the next is a liminal moment, a threshold moment. We always stand “at the brink of death” but at the death of one year and the birth of another, this truth reveals itself for further examination. We make “best of” lists, memorialize the recently deceased and resolve to live differently in the year ahead. We stand at the doorway of the New Year. It is a perfect time to practice dying.
Western culture is not comfortable with practicing dying. Western culture has a tendency to institutionalize dying, to remove it from sight. Remember the fear that was stirred up by talks of “death panels” being included in the President’s healthcare plan? The inclusion of assessing dying patients’ needs as a way to reduce end of life costs is a countercultural message in a society that treats death as an illness. Cynical politicians fed on our collective fear of dying and stirred up controversy for their own political gain.
“Perhaps, from the great spiritual traditions of the past, we can retrieve a vision of dying that makes it possible for us to embrace the unknown without being paralyzed with fear, and to embrace the truth of impermanence as we open our arms to the world,” Joan Halifax tells us. “Plato told his students, ‘Practice dying.’ The Christian monks of medieval Europe ritually whispered to one another, ‘Memento mori’ (‘Remember death’) (Being with Dying, page 48). In my own Unitarian Universalist tradition we have Ralph Waldo Emerson, emulating the practice of Buddhist monks, opening the coffin of his much-beloved first wife thirteen months after her death. Twenty-five years later when the coffin of his son was being moved, fifteen years after his death, Emerson again opened the coffin.
This seems morbid and ghoulish, hard to comprehend in a world that keeps death far away from us in sterile hospital rooms and lavish, over-priced burial arrangements. Emerson’s insistence on seeing the reality of impermanence is neither morbid nor ghoulish. This was Emerson learning to live in the ever present now while freeing himself from the limitations of the past. If you have ever witnessed a loved one’s cremains being released back to the elements, you know the healing that is possible in the stark acknowledgement that life and death are constantly caught in a loving dance.
We practice dying when we let go of the way we thought our lives would look. We practice dying when we surrender to the way things are. We practice dying when we let go and let be. The brackets we impose on one year versus the next also allow us to practice dying.
I do not know what happens when we die. I am attracted to the idea described by philosophers and theologians as objective immortality. Objective immortality is not the same as subjective immortality: the notion that we live after death in a perfected fashion of the way we lived before death. Objective immortality means that every thought, every action, every way of being we have created while living, lives on in a perpetual web of existence, described by some as the mind of God or by Emerson as the Oversoul. We are in the lives we leave behind, not just in children we may create, but in every life we touch during our brief sojourn in this world that we are destined to leave.
Dying is the ultimate act of surrender because we truly do not know what comes next. At the beginning of a New Year we would like to know what comes next. We would like to make what comes next happen based on all of the supposedly bad things that happened in the old year. In the art of practicing dying we give up controlling what comes next and we surrender to the glorious possibility that Life can surprise us. In the art of practicing dying we learn to let go and let be.