I’ve been called many things throughout my life; most have been accurate, some complimentary, and a few offensive. But one I never expected was given to me after Lessons For the Living—my memoir as a hospice volunteer—was published: the death guy.
Not a label I relished, but one I should have expected since I had been writing about end-of-life issues for eight years and served more than 400 hospice patients. When a conversation lasted more than ten words, I knew I would be asked, “Do you believe in life after death?”
I found that few people were interested in a purely objective answer. Most wanted to hear an answer that reinforced their beliefs. Atheists hoped for a defiant “no” response. Agnostics wanted a reaffirmation of their questioning attitude. Those with religious convictions hoped I would confirm their beliefs by describing the appearance of a mysterious “light at the end of the tunnel.” And those who were spiritual but not religious waited for substantiation of something universal.
A Disappointing Answer to the Question About Life After Death
So what did this supposed expert, “the death guy,” have to say? My answer was, “I don’t have a clue.” Yes, I witnessed some inexplicable events that defied logic: a mystical experience when my breath synced with a three-month-old infant as we rocked days before he died, the instant creation of an emotional bond rarely achieved even after years of friendship, and transformative emotions as I held someone when they exhaled for the final time.
But after eight years of emersion in the death and dying culture, I still don’t know what’s waiting for me in a few years—hopefully in decades.
Why The Question Is Asked
I believe everyone has at one time asked the question of what happens after we die. Their answer may involve the Christian image of peace, love, and community; the Jewish seven levels of devotion; the Muslim paradise of milk, honey, and 72 virgins; the Buddhist setting where Karma determines your level of existence; the agnostic deep hole of uncertainty; or the atheist’s ardent belief of “nothingness.” And on the flip side for many lurks the horrendous depiction of hell as painted by Hieronymus Bosch.
Five Ways to Lessen Death Anxiety
Sometimes we twist ourselves into knots with questions that either don’t make sense or are unanswerable. I believe fretting over what faces us after we die is a great example. None of my patients ever said they knew what to expect after they died; even those with deep religious convictions had some doubts. Yet those who had lived their lives in a certain way or recently changed it felt more comfortable approaching death then patients whose lives lacked one or more of the following five. I know there are others, but these seemed the most important.
1. Forgiving Others
The Tibetans have a saying, “ You can throw hot stones at your enemy, but you’ll burn your hands in doing it.”
Forgive people who have hurt you. If you can’t forgive, try to understand the origins of their unskillful actions.
2. Asking for Forgiveness
Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes big ones with terrible consequences. Carrying the burden as we get closer to dying eats up the emotional reserves necessary to face the unknown.
The longer you wait to ask for forgiveness for an unskillful act, the more likely it will affect your ability to deal with your death. Even if forgiveness is not granted, asking for it can be healing.
3. Letting Go
Most of us have difficulty giving up what is familiar and comfortable, even if it is dysfunctional. We may have difficulty seeing that a great relationship has turned abusive and cling to its memory rather than reality.
The sooner you realize that everything eventually changes, the less the faulty belief in permanence will structure your life. Letting go of what no longer works can be freeing.
4. Unconditional Giving
When you give your time, effort, money, friendship, etc., there is often an expectation of receiving a benefit (e.g., tax break, thank you, acknowledgment, etc.). But if you have expectations for reciprocity, you move actions from a “generosity” column to a “transactional” one, something that becomes a business deal rather than a no-strings-attached compassionate act.
When you give, whether material or emotional, do it because you care deeply for the person, organization, or cause. The fewer expectations you have about receiving anything in return, the greater will be your satisfaction.
5. Heart Communications
Heart communications are communications expressed without defensives, qualifications, or semantic shadings. It’s a way of communicating we would like everyone to use with us, but one we are often hesitant to use with others.
Be honest yet compassionate in your communications. The more open you are, the less unskillful statements will linger in your mind.
The Bottom Line
W.C. Fields, the 1930s comedian, was a lifelong atheist, and according to a popular story, when he was close to death, a friend came to say goodbye and found Fields reading a bible. ‘Bill,’ his friend said, ‘You’re an atheist. Why are you reading the Bible?’ Fields looked up from the book and said, ‘Looking for loopholes.’
So, if you are looking for a way of reducing your death anxiety, try applying my clients’ five lessons. Do it for a week or two and let me know if it has diminished your anxiety about dying—and more importantly, made your life better. These five may just be loopholes, but what if they are more than that?