"Most people spend their whole lives asleep and then wake up a few days before they’re about to die"
– Olivia Bareham, Sacred Crossings
Death has a 100 per cent success rate. You can’t escape its inevitability, nor can you deny its existence. Most people prepare for milestones like childbirth and marriage, but not death. When it happens to someone we know or love, why do we feel so unprepared? Death can be our greatest teacher. If we can empower ourselves to be better prepared for death, its impact on ourselves and our loved ones can be lessened. And finally, we can wake up to our life and begin to embrace it more fully.
We have forgotten how to ‘do death’, and we distrust our natural instincts in end of life care. The community support once provided is no longer there and we have little guidance to tell us what to do. We have become swept along by the promise of technology and medical treatment, meaning that we no longer regard dying as a natural process. Death has become institutionalised, with families and community support on the periphery of end-of-life care.
Other cultures such as those in Ireland, India, Indonesia and Mexico have a very different way of dealing with death, with rituals for looking after a dying person, finding ways in which to remember their loved ones and honoring the process of their own and others grieving. Death is normalised and is seen as a natural end to life. These communities support each other, rather than relying on medical and healthcare professionals to tell them what to do. In many western countries we’ve lost most of our rituals surrounding death, and with them, our confidence in caring for the dying. It’s up to us to start doing small things to ignite change and to bring back some of these intrinsic and forgotten customs.
What gives our life meaning?
Having conversations earlier about death means we can be more prepared for when it happens. I started the organisation Doing Death and a podcast of the same name to encourage a dialogue around the subject, even though my actual experience of death itself had been minimal. I volunteer in a hospice, and when I started I was fearful of what I might experience. Once I overcame my fears, I found it to be one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences of my life. There’s something about being present when someone is dying, being close to the veil between life and death.
It’s not easy, but it can be a privilege to bear witness to and be present for a person during that time. Creating a space using rituals of your own making like massage, candles, music, essential oils, or even reading from a favourite book. Being in that space can compel us to think about our relationships, love or even how we are living and what we might want to do with the rest of our lives.
The presence of death reminds us of how finite life is. These are some of the biggest lessons I have learned from my time in a hospice: not to take any day for granted; to take care of yourself and others while not losing sight of what’s important; and that we are all connected through life, love and the universal experience of death. Our relationships unite us, give our lives meaning and inspire us.
Most people aren’t scared to die, but are scared of how they die. Fear is a natural part of our make-up but you can’t avoid it — and nor should you. This innate natural response is needed for protection from external dangers. But fear can manifest itself in our thoughts and distort our view of the world. Confronting those fears head-on can help prevent them hindering our life and holding us back. The idea that life is impermanent is in itself a scary thought. It can stop us from challenging our feelings about death. If you’re one of the many people who fear death, it’s worth asking yourself why you might feel that way. Is it based on experiences in the past? Or of someone close to you dying? Could it be based on a fear you have in life? Death is a reminder that our lives are transient and this is a fundamental component to our existence.
One man who came to a discussion group that I held about death was petrified of it. It was constantly on his mind and getting in the way of him living a normal life. He had never spoken his fears out loud before, but once he did he felt a great sense of relief. Talking about something has the power to release inner conflict and bring about change. Starting to have those conversations and confronting any fears about death may help to dissolve the intensity of it and any preconceived ideas we may have formed.
Part of preparing for death starts with acceptance. You may not like the fact that you’re going to die, but embracing its inevitability is the first step to removing some of the angst and mystery surrounding the subject. When broaching a subject as broad and complex as death, a natural starting point could be some of the more practical matters like writing a will, funeral planning, advance care planning (how you would like to be cared for or what medical treatment you may not want during an emergency situation or illness), decluttering, organising your belongings and putting household or business affairs in order. Not only does it make sense to think about these things now, rather than when someone is approaching death, but also it can help with the acknowledgement that death is real and could come at any time. Planning can also help to avoid family tension, fall-outs and anyone having to make difficult decisions on someone’s behalf. And it encourages us to start contemplating what matters in our lives and our legacy.
Thinking about the inevitability of death isn’t being morbid; it’s a chance to reconcile ourselves with the inevitable and to approach it without fear or regret. On a more practical level, planning can make you feel satisfied that you won’t be leaving anyone to second-guess what you want, or with a pile of stuff to sort out after you’re gone.
Death needs to be seen more as a natural, human process if we are to improve our experience of it. Living in a more holistic way to feed, replenish and heal our inner being can give us better tools to cope with life, and therefore death whenever it comes. Giving ourselves time for reflection, contemplation and quiet is as important in life as it is around the time of death.
Complementary therapies, treatments and counselling can be offered as part of hospice or palliative end of life care. Practices such as meditation, energy healing (e.g. reiki), visualisation or psychotherapy are useful tools to help cope with the emotional baggage accumulated in life and some of the fears associated with death and dying. Being able to access a peaceful state of tranquillity can help us manage pain better and to let go physically and emotionally at the end when we are ready. If we can learn to approach modern life in a more holistic way, it can help us to cope with everyday stress that we might experience.
Living and dying consciously
Sometimes it takes death or dying to really start thinking about life. To fully appreciate how good life is. A dying person can become more present in a way they weren’t before, prioritising what’s important, adjusting their outlook, and becoming more aware of their own mortality. It sometimes takes the profoundness of death to lead them to certain realisations about their life. To see the bigger picture and feel connected to something much larger than themselves. The little things they may have taken for granted are transcended from the everyday: sharing a moment, a walk or a cuddle. For the dying person living more in the present moment can be empowering, but the point here is not to wait until we or someone we know is dying to realise how precious life is. Being aware of who and what matters to us means we can live more consciously now, no matter how long we may have.
Faced with death, love and relationships are intensified. Love is what counts, keeps us connected, and love is what remains. It’s the most potent emotion I feel and witness when I am experiencing the death of someone. Not the illnesses people have, but who they love, what they love and what matters to them in life.
We are born with love and we should die with love. To experience warmth, tenderness, empathy, comfort, compassion and to be heard and acknowledged. These things can help lessen anxiety and enable us to transcend the experience of death. If we can better navigate death, we can guide and educate future generations to have a more positive experience of death and a deeper understanding of how to live well until then.
Amanda Blainey is a public speaker, author and the founder of Doing Death, a multi-media platform and podcast that explores death and dying. In addition to working with patients in a UK hospice she is involved in The Hospice Biographers’ charity that records the life stories of people with life-limiting illnesses. She runs a regular Death Café, a pop-up space for people to discuss any aspect of death and dying. Her hope is that by shifting old paradigms and opening up authentic conversations, she can help people to accept death as part of life and inspire them to live in a more positive and meaningful way.