As fall deepens and light fades, nature is now showing us her “dying” season. In areas where seasons are dramatically distinct, nature goes out with flashing glory before winter gives the landscape a rest. We humans are a bit more apt to go out kicking and screaming.
Many of us fear terrible, painful or lingering deaths over which we’ll have no control. But, the more aquatinted I become with people at the end of their lives, the more I’ve noticed that we tend to die in a similar fashion as we’ve lived: according to our temperament and much more in control of the process than we think. I’ve come to believe that the time leading up to death, far from being just the necessary end to life, is a profoundly meaningful time during which we resolve and complete the deepest lessons of our lives.
Even those deaths that seem like random, cruel blows of fate unbefitting the dignity of a person’s earlier years hold unexpected gifts and, perhaps hidden purposes. Alzheimer’s is one of the “tragic” endings many of us fear and I know of a man whose father developed it shortly into retirement after a lifetime of hard work. He supported five children and devoted himself to a company that didn’t reciprocate his loyalty, firing him when he was nearing retirement age and had been “used up.” Alzheimer’s seemed like a sad finish to the life he’d lived and the person he’d been. It wasn’t long before his middle-aged son had to take care of him like a child.
During these years of illness, the son spent many days taking his father along with him wherever he went and said it was the first time he’d ever felt close to the man. Once he even took his father to his weekly therapy session, and was amazed by his father’s sudden and unusual moment of lucidity: when asked by the therapist if he understood why he’d been invited to the session he responded, “To show my son that I love him.” Then he lapsed back into forgetfulness.
Here was a man who’d never been affectionate or emotionally demonstrative, who devoted himself to what he thought were his duties: working hard for his family and his company. Maybe Alzheimer’s enabled him finally to set down the role of provider and allow some softness into his life that he may never have accepted in his “right mind.” Perhaps, in the end, this was his perfect retirement.
One of the most fearsome aspects of dying is its capacity to plunge us into unbearable pain or disability. I had a close friend who died in her thirties from a life-long degenerative disease. She feared death for much of her life because the course of her illness left people progressively more disabled and in pain. For many years she secretly held a suicide plan for taking her own life before she became too disabled to do so.
She never resorted to it, however, even though her disease did progress as expected. Somewhere along the way she just stopped fighting the pain. Instead of trying to control death from a place of fear, she allowed its mystery to unfold; trusting herself, trusting the process of life. Toward the end, she had many experiences of leaving her body and meeting with “angels” who gave her encouragement and instruction. She also had many deepening experiences of love with the people in her life. She found that in spite of growing pain and physical disability, she loved life more with every passing day. She once reflected in horror that her fear of the unknown had almost compelled her to end her life prematurely, cutting short this richest time of all.
She called me once in the middle of the night and said with much excitement that her increasing shortness of breath, which initially had frightened her, was starting to feel like the beginning of being born—she just needed to push a little harder and she’d be “out.” She imagined her favorite uncle, who had passed away six months earlier, waiting on the other side to catch her as she popped out! The next day, after enjoying her favorite meal of chocolate doughnuts with friends, she easily passed away.
If death is something you think about reluctantly and only with foreboding, consider going into this time of year-the dying season-more deliberately. Decide to become the creator of your death, not its victim. The following exercise is a start.
Exercise: Your Dying Season
Write a story about yourself as a very old person nearing the end of your life. Write this as someone who’s experienced a deeply fulfilling life. As you look back, you see how even the failures and disappointments had a purpose, teaching you something you needed for your next step. You have the perspective of an older, wiser person and can acknowledge your accomplishments, accepting that they didn’t all match your hopes, plans, and expectations. You feel warmth and gratitude for the love you shared with people and, now that many of your loved ones have died, you look forward to making the transition they have already made.
Picture yourself as healthy and vital, even at an advanced age, and your life filled with love, meaning, and serenity. Describe what you do in a day, what you think about, what gives you pleasure.
Continue on to the event of your death. Picture it as you wish it to be. See who is with you, where you are, what the cause of death is, and what the final moment of letting go is like. Describe the experience of releasing your body to a wonderful sense of freedom and joy. Finally, tell how the people who love you celebrate your passing and imagine your funeral or memorial.
Don’t wait passively for death to swoop down on you like some fearsome predator. Instead, choose to go out with the flourish and easy letting go of a fall leaf. Start now, expecting and creating nothing less than the perfect finish to your well-lived life.