7 Ways to Transform Our Lives Through Our Relationship With Death
This Death Awareness Week, Amanda Blainey – the author of Do Death: For a Life Better Lived – shares 7 ways we can improve our lives by changing our relationship with our mortality
Therapists and counsellors can help you through death anxiety and existential issues of finding meaning – find your therapist here
Having conversations earlier about death means we can be more prepared for when it happens but more importantly it can embolden our lives with more meaning. I started my organisation ‘Doing Death’ and my podcast of the same name to encourage a dialogue around the subject. I volunteer in a hospice, and once I overcame some of my initial fears I found it to be one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences of my life. It can be hard being present between the veil of life and death when someone is dying but it can also be a great privilege to bear witness to. Being alongside someone in that liminal space can compel us to think about our relationships, love, how we are living and what we might want to do with the rest of our lives. Here are seven valuable lessons I have learned from my journey with death and dying so far:
1. An acceptance of death is a reminder of how precious life is
Many of us have never accepted or prepared for death and will exist in a pocket of denial right up to the end of life. 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. Death reminds us of how brief life is and can prompt us to live more consciously. In this way, death can be our greatest teacher.
2. Preparing and planning can be an empowering process
We prepare for milestones like childbirth and marriage but rarely for death.
When broaching a subject as broad and complex as death, a natural starting point is some of the more practical matters like writing a will, funeral planning, advance care planning (i.e how you would like to be cared for when you are ill and specifying what medical treatment you may not want during an emergency or illness), de-cluttering, organising your belongings and putting household or business affairs in order. Planning can also help to avoid family tension, fall-outs and anyone having to make difficult decisions on your behalf. On a more practical level, it 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. Thinking about death isn't being morbid; it's a chance to reconcile ourselves with the inevitable and to approach it without fear or regret.
3. Living more holistically offers us essential tools at the end of life
Living in a more holistic way to feed, replenish and heal our inner being can empower us 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. If we can learn to approach modern life in a more holistic way it can help us to cope with everyday stress. Being able to access a peaceful state of tranquility can enable us to manage pain better and to let go physically and emotionally at the end.
4. People are as individual in death as they are in life
The author Elizabeth Gilbert whose partner died of cancer said: “There are living people and there are dead people and as long as somebody is alive, as long as they have any sense about them, you have to expect and allow them to be who they have always been..and who they always were”.
Most people will die with the same attitudes and beliefs they had in life. If a person has lived in denial about death all their life this is probably how they will want to die, dismissive of what is happening to them. Or if someone is more practically minded they might find comfort in the more mundane tasks to make sense of their circumstances rather than being overly emotional. Part of being available to someone in their journey at the end of life or in any instance is not placing judgment on them, but to have an acceptance of who they are and to honour what they want.
5. An awareness of death enables us to live more consciously
Our constant accumulation of 'stuff' begs the question: Is this just another denial of our mortality? We are conditioned to think that buying products can provide us with status, meaning, value and stability. Our consumer habits and the environmental impact of manufacturing, distribution, and waste have created some huge problems globally. All too often there is a desire to acquire more and more without any thought about what happens to it all when we die.
Knowing that our time here is impermanent can make us think about our legacy, our treatment of our planet and what we are leaving behind for generations to come. The artist Claudia Bicen interviewed several dying people over a couple of years, for her art installation and found her life became more enriched by learning of their stories. She discovered that on their death bed nobody wished they had made more money, worked harder or bought more things. For most, meaning came from how they had interacted with family and friends and participated in life rather than from what they had consumed. Claudia ascertained that ‘a meaningful life is one that gives more than it takes’.
6. Love and relationships are intensified
Faced with death, love and relationships are heightened. 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 end of life care, we can guide and educate future generations to have a more positive experience of death and a deeper understanding of how important it is to live and love deeply until then.
7. A dying person can become more present in their life
Sometimes it takes death or dying to start thinking about life. To fully appreciate how good it can be. Someone who is dying can become more present in a way they weren't before, prioritising what's important, adjusting their outlook, and being more aware of their mortality. The profoundness of death can lead them to certain realisations about their life. To feel connected to something much larger than themselves. The little things they may have taken for granted are transcended from the every day: sharing a moment, a walk or a cuddle. For the dying person living more in the present moment can be fulfilling, 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.
We each live an extraordinary and ordinary life and we all have two days in common, the day we are born, and the day we die. We cannot predict how or when we are going to die but we can accept death as part of our existence, to prepare for it in our own way and to live more joyously and authentically. Death gives us clarity, it allows us to be more present, to see the everyday beauty and individuality in people, our relationships, nature, and within our own life experience.
Amanda Blainey is the author of Do Death: For a Life Better Lived.