The meditation on death is the meditation on life itself. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk
RIDDLE: What is the one item the maker doesn’t want, the buyer never uses, and the consumer doesn’t know he has used?
The other day my 24 year old son approached me to have a conversation about my end of life care desires and what I wanted when I died. To say I was a bit shocked was an understatement, but we had the conversation to the best of our comfort abilities. Then my son said something so profoundly sad it broke my heart: “When you die I will be all alone.”
My sons pre-frontal cortex has finished forming, and with his deepening awareness of the world around him, and a releasing of the selfishness that marks childhood, he is taking on the heavy burden of adult understanding that nothing is forever. People come and people go from our lives, and sometimes they go permanently via death. We agreed that we would have a family meeting at a Notaries to write our wills, something that I, at the age of 43 do not have. I do not have a will despite me having been a single mom for many years, despite the dangerous career I worked in for many years, and despite the assets I have in my name. I have been negligent in managing my own death thus far in life.
Our talk weighed heavily on my mind until I was able to carve out the time to send an email to my son and my Dad outlining my wishes, where the money and the important documents are kept, and how to dispose of the body. I wrote explicit details for my celebration of life listing some songs I liked, the flowers I wanted, what charity people could donate to, and the desire that there will be no meat at this party since I am a vegetarian. I have specifically noted in my email, soon to be a will, that if more than one Doctor has said I am brain dead, and nothing changes in one week, then let the body go. I have given my son two specific parameters to take the responsibility off his shoulders if a decision needs to be made to pull the plug. I feel lighter knowing my loved ones won’t be tasked with trying to make tough choices when they are grieving.
I then copied my email to my best friend and boyfriend. Neither of them took the email particularly well. In fact, both of them instantly suspected something was wrong with me. My boyfriend, who is a Balinese Hindu which has a strict traditional cremation ceremony, was particularly confused by my email, which mentioned turning me into a tree. My girlfriend said my email made her sad and “I pray that … we will never have to talk about this again.”
Which pretty much sums up our North American culture — don’t talk about death. I am not sure if we think we are tempting fate if we discuss it, or if we are just so emotionally impaired as a culture that to discuss the inevitable ending of your own life is just too vulnerable for most people. Yet, my version of a “good man” is a man who takes responsibility for himself, is accountable to his family, and can be brave and vulnerable and have those hard conversations when they are needed. A good man will accept there is only one way off this majestic fireball of ours; therefore, a good man is the man who will mitigate his families suffering should he depart on an earlier flight than expected.
You as men are likely the higher income earning spouse. Your spouse might even be staying home to raise the children if you have made those lifestyle adjustments or are financially blessed. This makes your partner incredibly financially vulnerable should you pass on in an untimely manner. Is your union legally sanctioned where you live or will your partner be excluded from claiming joint assets, and have you figured out a work-around to this? Do you have a pension, and if not, do you have life insurance? If you have a pension is it enough to support the family in the absence of life insurance? Do you have mortgage insurance if you have a large debt on the family home? These financial obligations your spouse will be left holding, without your income, need to be considered. A great act of love you can perform for your partner is to ensure financial stability after your death. The last thing someone grieving needs to worry about is making the next mortgage payment.
These are moving targets as the mortgage is paid down and the children grow up and leave the home, so these conversations need to be ongoing at key points in your life, which is what prompted my email. I realized that because of my divorce, I no longer had an advocate that intimately knew what I wanted when I died.
While we are blessed in North America with great freedoms of expression, unlimited choices, and the right to practise and believe whatever we so desire, this loss of tradition so to speak does mean that there is no one right way to conduct a service for someone who has passed on. I want an airy fairy sort of ethereal party that focusses on the amazing travels I had, the positive contributions I made to the world, and my relationship with my son. You might want a sports themed Irish wake, or a very religious plot side service. All of these personalized touches we can now have in our services could create some confusion or conflict between different generations or family members depending on their own personal beliefs. Therefore, I believe we have an obligation to face our mortality if only to communicate, in writing, to our partner or adult child exactly what we would want.
My Mom died early in life, and suddenly, without a will. Her death was complicated by the fact that she had become a Buddhist some years earlier, and the rest of the family didn’t know how a Buddhist would want death dealt with. All we knew was that the Buddhists believe in reincarnation, so was there even a ceremony to mark the end of a physical bodies time on the planet, this time around? The grieving process of a shocking and untimely death was seriously complicated by the fights between my Dad and I over what my Mom would have wanted. In the end, the family had to step back and let her friends plan her ceremony. It was the most respectful thing to do, but it was hard to relinquish that control. A Buddhist gifting ceremony is what occurred, and it was not like any other funeral I had been to, so it certainly isn’t what we would have planned as her non-Buddhist family members.
A Buddhist gifting ceremony, as I saw it, involved little to no crying, and no physical gifts despite the name. The participants sat on the lawn in a circle with my Moms photo in the middle. During a hot mid-summers afternoon there was incense and a candle burning. We went around the circle taking turns talking about a good memory of my Mom, and then the Buddhist monk said some stuff. Forgive me, I was in shock at the time so I don’t recall that particular phase of the ceremony some 16 years ago. What I do remember is that everyone in the circle was given another chance to talk, and this was the actual spiritual gifting of something to your loved one to ease their transition into their next life. It was a metaphorical gift they could take with them on their journey. What was likely happening, according to Wikipedia, was a version of a merit transfer from the participants of the ceremony to my Mom “in order to diminish the deceased’s suffering in their new existence.”
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn suggests meditating on our death for the specific purpose of ridding ourselves of our fear of death so that we may confront death “in a very calm and easy way”. I believe that thinking and/or talking about your eventual death will also keep you honest and on track with your personal life goals. Talking about your own death challenges the fear we all have about death, be it the actual physical passing, the unknown of what, if anything, comes afterwards, or the fear that we didn’t do enough with the life we were given while we had it. The only way to desensitize yourself to a trigger or a trauma is to continually expose yourself to it. Keep thinking and talking about your death in a matter-of-fact way, and eventually, death becomes a normalized part of the human condition. Which it is; death is the one constant we universally share across the borders and cultures of our vast and beautiful world.
While the idea of mediating on our death might seem morbid or absurd in our culture, some quiet time alone reflecting on your values, and your moral and legal obligations to your family are not morbid, they are responsible and loving. Once you have solidified your thoughts put them on paper, or at least have a conversation with someone significant in your life as a starting point. Some of the questions to think about are: who do you trust to have power of attorney should you be incapacitated; who do you trust to execute your will and not create a three-ring-circus within the family; how will your assets be divided amongst those you love; under what circumstances would you want medical intervention or not; is there a time and a place in your end-of-life care for a Do Not Resuscitate order; where are the legal documents located that your family members will need; and, are there specific religious or spiritual practises you want respected?
I did not write my end of life email to upset anyone, which it did, or because I am depressed, sick, or in a morbid state of mind. On the contrary, I have never been happier or more full of life. I wrote that email because I am finally developing a deeper compassion for, and understanding of, how I impact others, and that includes how my death will impact others. I have my son to thank for that eye-opener.
The answer to the riddle above is a coffin. A coffin is the item the maker doesn’t want, the buyer never uses, and the consumer doesn’t know he has used.
“It’s a shame we have to die my dear
No one’s getting out of here, alive
What a way to go, they have no fear
No one’s getting out of here, alive.
… It’s a shame we have to disappear.”
Photo: Flick/Rennett Stowe