His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, "If you accept that death is part of life, then when it actually does come, you may face it more easily." In our culture, we know we will die, but at the same time we all tend to deny it, ignore it, and cover it up in many different ways. How to prepare for death is not talked about or focused on even by our doctors, caregivers, and religious teachers. But I also see this "cover-up" changing with the emergence of Death Cafes, conversations about death with dignity laws, and films and books about death. Also, because there is a growing pressure from the aging Boomers generation death is arriving at their generational shore. It is from them we have a "Death Awareness Movement" (or DAM). To my mind these various approaches to awareness about death is a positive development to counter our cultural "death phobia."
Even though there is a growing awareness about death at a cultural and societal level, there are core issues I believe each of us need to explore at a personal level. Some of these issues you may have already confronted. Other issues may pose questions for you that are not in your understanding or awareness. Below are five key issues I explored as I began to write my new book, Embracing the End of Life: A Journey into Dying and Awakening, I encourage you to consider these topics as they can begin to help you frame your thoughts and feelings about the question of your own dying. One or more of these topics may stand out as important to you right now. The others may become important to you at another point in your life.
- Understand Your Resistance to Dying.
Why do we resist death? Consider the notion of resisting. To resist is to push away, to react to change of something new, to something that is unknown or something we do not want. We know that when we are in resistance life brings disorder, confusion, and unpredictability. Death brings these resistances naturally, as it creates major changes in our lives. What is clear for most of us is that we do not understand or know about the process of death. Therefore, it is primarily the unknown we fear. When we think about dying we realize that everything that we have ever known goes away. Our family, our life patterns, and our body are all taken away when we die. Who wouldn't resist and try in every possible way to prevent death from happening?
What I have found is that the more we know about the unknown factors of dying, the more our resistance is reduced. Just one hundred years ago or so, when my mother was young she lived on a farm. She saw animals be born and also die. She saw her grandparents die in their home, and then be buried on their property with the community all around. My mother witnessed the whole process of birth to death, so she knew what to expect when she approached her own death. My mother died very peacefully, and without fear or resistance.
Even though our physical body dies, there is also a psychological dynamic of resistance that comes to the forefront of our dying experience. These key psychological factors of resistance were noted by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who did pioneering research in dying and grief. In her classic book, Death and Dying, she noted that the reaction and fear to dying is typically generated by some form of resistance. In the resistance and turmoil of a person dying she observed five basic reactions. They do not always occur in sequence, nor do all occur in any given individual. She said that the main driver of resistance to dying is fear. Fear fuels the reactions of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, but can finally result in the acceptance of one's dying. Kubler-Ross realized that until these reactions were confronted consciously, people could not surrender into the beauty of their own death. Of these five that Kubler-Ross describes, which are the strongest of these reactions that you currently have toward your dying?
- The Importance of Letting Go.
In the eye of the storm of resistance, and after the initial realization that your death is coming for you, you may arrive at Kubler–Ross's stage of acceptance. As you are dying and have worked through the chaos of your emotions and resistance to dying, you can enter into a place of calm and peace. In acceptance you are giving up and surrendering to your own death. Many spiritual teachers say, "Death happens, it is just death, but how we meet death is up to us." For each of us death takes on a different face and a different understanding when we let go.
When letting go happens your death experience becomes the most important experience in your life. Unconsciously, you have been moving toward death all of your life. If you have ever been in a room with a friend or family member at the moment of their death you never forget the brightness of love and power that emanated in the room and opened a sense of love within you. One of the ways that you can prepare for this natural dying process is through the practice of meditation. Meditation is a practice that trains you to release and let go of the busy resistances in daily life. It quiets your mind. When you are in the dying process, meditation prepares you to relax, stabilizes your mind, opens you to compassion, and creates a dynamic shift that reduces your anxiety and fear.
In many ways meditation is a type of dying. It is first a letting go process of your mental patterns, thoughts, and emotions that occupy your daily life. Whether using the breath as a focus, a mantra or chant, or just sitting quietly, meditation lets go of the mental world. You descend into your senses, which creates an expansion beyond the boundaries of your body. As meditation deepens the sense of your identity weakens and your fear releases; this will enable you to experience what will happen in your dying process. Meditation creates a practice of letting go both of your daily fears and the fear of your death. By learning to let go you let death take care of itself as it occurs in the natural course of your life. If you have not learned some way to quiet your mind, your resistance to death can be a time of unrest, confusion, and terrifying fear. A developed meditation practice can be a powerful tool for you in your daily life and when you are dying.
- The Caregiver's Role as You Die.
The first two points above focus on your personal experience and understanding of how you may face your death. These have been about you and what happens when you die. Now, turn your attention to how you would want to be cared for as you go through your dying process.
Many of us have never thought about how we want to be treated or who we would want around us when we die. It is important to choose caregivers who will love and nourish you and who will create an environment that will establish for you a peaceful state of mind as you go through the process of your death. Your caregivers need to match you as you move into a peaceful, loving, and opening state of your being in the last moments of your life. Be willing to ask individuals to leave if you do not feel comfortable with them.
You can choose a caregiver who would be willing to be a "manager" of your environment. This is a person who you trust absolutely to fulfill and manage your desires for the kind of care and environment you want. Your caregivers are the people you would want with you as you die. This key caregiver "manager" would also help if the environment got tense or disturbances arose that could upset you. The key caregiver would be responsible to manage and bring in to the room people that would be supportive and aligned with your wishes of how you want to end your days on earth. Environment is about kinds of music you may or may not want, people meditating or sitting quietly with you, the brightness or darkness of the room, etc.
Who are the kind of caregivers you would want around you at the various stages of your dying process? Who would be your key person to manage the environment and the other caregivers? Be aware that professional caregivers can help you but they can also hinder you with pushy behavior and attitudes about how you are to be treated.
It is a privilege for caregivers to be with you in this once-in-a lifetime passage. You are the one to take the lead in your own death process. Others may think there is a particular way to do things, but it is your process, not theirs. You are the guide, so let them guide you based on what you want them to do for you. For example, you may want a caregiver that is with you at all times and at the moment of your death.
- Prepare Key Legal Documents Now.
In preparation for our death, we can soften our dying by making amends with others, settling old conflicts, and doing everything to work though medical/emotional matters of life. It is also important to complete related legal issues in advance of our death. By taking care of your legal issues, you provide a gift to your loved ones, friends, and yourself. With the legal work complete, your caregivers will be able to step in and expedite your wishes with minimal difficulty. When everything is in order for your loved ones, you will also have more peace of mind as you die. Below are a few key legal documents to consider.
- A Will. A will is a "must do right now" in your life. When you die without a will or trust, it is said you have died "intestate." There are a set of "intestate succession rules" if you do not have a will or trust at the time of death, which means that a court of law will distribute your property according to the laws of your state. If you don't already have a will and designated someone to present your will after you die, create one right now and give a copy of the will to that person. If you only have a will, your estate will go through the probate court for taxing purposes before being distributed to the beneficiaries named in the will. Also, if there are minor children involved, the court can decide who will be their guardians.
- A Living Trust. Another very important document beyond a simple will is to have a living trust, which includes a will but is also used to prepare your estate. A trust designates by whom and how your estate will be controlled and managed for any and all of your assets. Two key advantages of having a living trust is that a will goes into effect only after you die, whereas a living trust is effective before death. Secondly, property left through a living trust does not pass through probate. Each state has different forms for your trust, so if you choose to consider a trust investigate what would be involved. If you die without a trust, another set of "intestate succession rules" will be applied. This means that a court of law will distribute your property according to the laws of your state. How it is distributed may not fulfill your wishes. If you have no relatives, it will all go to the state. But, if you have a living trust your, assets will go directly to your beneficiaries without being held in probate or taxed. Do a will, and consider creating a trust.
- An Advanced Directive. The next important document to have is an advanced directive. It is like a living trust in that it goes into effect prior to death; it guides the medical decision-making and requires two physicians to certify the actions you want doctors to take in different medical situations when you are unable to make medical decisions for yourself. It also goes into effect if you are in a medical condition specified in the state's living will law (such as "terminal illness" or "permanent unconsciousness"). Emergencies can happen at any time. If you unable to make decisions about your medical treatment, your published advance directives help fulfill your end of life wishes
I had a friend who was seventy-nine and was having trouble breathing. Her neighbor took her to the emergency room. Because she did not have an advanced directive, the doctors did everything they could to keep her alive with all their medical technology. We have no idea if that was her wish or if it was her time to just be left to die peacefully. Do investigate how you want to be physically treated at the end of life and what your wishes are for your process of dying. An advance directive provides that for you.
- The Quality of Your Consciousness at the Time of death.
As I became more aware of how to prepare for this journey of death I wondered what happens to the mind and to our ego as we approach our dying. An African proverb says, "When death finds you, let it find you alive." I figured out what the proverb meant when I discovered that we live in two minds. The mind with which we are most familiar is the mind of survival, or what I call "the constricted self." This mind or self wants you to survive at any cost and not die. This constriction produces waves of anxiety, lowers your energy, and creates incredible anger and fear.
The other mind is the creative mind, or what I call "the expanded self." This mind or self is still connected to the constricted self but it has the potential to be free. This self has a higher frequency of love, appreciation, and gratitude rather than fear, anger, and shame. We have two brain hemispheres. The left hemisphere drives the survival personality or the constricted self. This self experiences all the survival issues that define our individual reality. It is these negative emotions that affect our energy level and causes us to lose our outer and inner rhythm of our life. What is important to know is that this left brain structure dissolves when you begin to die. Losing the left functions of the brain you are free of verbal language, judgments, and the ability to figure things out. This leaves in you the functioning of your right brain, which expresses the expanded self. This expanded brain self creates energy to extend compassion for yourself and for all being.
A tool to open to the expanded self in preparation for death now is to be mindful. To be mindful is to put your focus of attention and awareness on simple things like eating, walking, breathing, and cleaning, as well as when you meditate. Mindfulness is connecting your heart, body, and mind in the moment. By moving into the expanded state you have the ability to wake up before you die. Remember that when you die you will be in this expanded self of your right brain. This will be the most important spiritual experience of your life. It is a gift to yourself to be in that state now.
These five important things (knowing about resistance in the dying process, the importance of letting go, deciding how to manage your caregivers, completing your legal issues, and knowing how to develop the awareness of the kind of mind as you die) are for me the key points for preparing for this journey of life and death. The preparation for dying is as important as taking any other journey of discovery in our life. This preparation and journey is vital to our daily living.
I have found that having a practice of being in the expanding self that is filled with love for our self and for others is the key to dying consciously. It is also the key to live a more vital and awake life now. To be in the expanded self feels like being released from a prison into a state of freedom. The call of your death from this expanded place within you is to change your life in order to live more peacefully, joyfully, and vitally right now. William Shakespeare said, "To be prepared for death…. life shall thereby be the sweeter."