I remember flying back from my first trip to Africa and thinking, “This plane could go down right now and I’d be okay with it because I know I did the things I wanted to do during my time on this earth.” Sure, there are lots of other things I’d love to see/ do/ experience but I’d accomplished the MUST dos.
So, I’m wondering, where do you sit with death? If there was a scale from peaceful/ Death and I are good ———–to——–terrified/anxious/ can’t even think about it – where would you sit? Would you lean more towards peaceful or terrified?
Because fear of death (aka thanatophobia) is actually pretty common. And the coach in me is curious…if death is something that makes your heart race or your stomach clench…what are you actually afraid of?
Here are some common responses:
AFRAID IT’S GONNA HURT
This is a big one. Many people are worried that dying is painful. Sure, death can be painful for some but it’s not expected to be. More than 85% of palliative care patients have no severe symptoms by the time they die. And it’s important to remember that we have medication to deal with any pain that arises (modern medicine is great, right?).
AFRAID OF THE UNKNOWN
This is probably the second biggest fear, after all, no one has died and lived to tell the tale (near-death experiences don’t count here) so no one knows definitively what comes next.
Here’s where the stories we have about death can either fuel our fear or give us comfort. Some of us grew up with religious beliefs around brimstone and hellfires. Others were told there’s just nothing after death – you’re worm food. If your stories about death (and what happens next) aren’t comforting ask yourself…
- Who told me the story?
- Why did they tell me that story?
- Who benefits from me believing this story?
And here’s the best part of not knowing what happens – YOU get to create the story that gives YOU the most comfort. We often fill in the blanks with the worst-case scenario but we don’t have to. We can choose the most comforting and joyful story we can think of. We can choose to believe the story that gives us the most peace.
AFRAID OF DEATH-BED REGRETS
We’re afraid that we’ll get to the end of our lives and find out that we didn’t say “I love you” enough or “I’m sorry” enough. We’ll regret that we didn’t take the trip or write the book. We’re afraid that we’ll have spent so much time working that we forget to LIVE.
I encourage you to make your own MUST DO list.
I’ve known since I was a child that I wanted to experience Australia and Africa. So I planned and worked and made that happen. And it has given me such a tremendous sense of peace in my soul knowing that I accomplished those MUST DOs that I can go peacefully whenever my time comes.
It’s okay for our MUST DO list to change over time as we grow, evolve, and accomplish things. So, what’s currently on your list?
“A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain
I love that Mark Twain quote because it reminds me that nothing is guaranteed. As much as we all hope to live a long, full, rich life – it can end in an instant without any warning. And as the world paused with the pandemic, we all began to ask ourselves if we were happy with the life we’d created. If we’ve accomplished the things that our soul has been nudging us toward. Because if something in our lives is off, no longer working, or doesn’t feel right? NOW is the time to fix it.
I also love the Death Bed Test from death doula Alua Arthur for helping us decide what’s important in life. When you’re not sure if you should do something, ask yourself these 3 questions…
- On my death bed will I be happy I did it?
- On my death bed will I be sad I didn’t do it?
- On my death bed will it even matter?
Because if it doesn’t matter – you should probably focus more on the things that DO.
Make a Death Plan
Death can feel less scary if we plan for it. Not just a will or power of attorney or organ donor card (which are all very important) but what we’d like to happen in our final moments.
Many of us have heard of a birth plan (when mom’s-to-be decide how they’d like their delivery to go) and a death plan is kind of the same thing. You get to imagine your ideal death. Who would be there? What would be happening? What would you most love to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch?
And, as anyone who’s been present at a birth can tell you, things don’t always go according to plan. And the same might be true for your death plan. That’s okay. You plan for the best and then surrender and leave space for what’s actually happening. And when we take the time to communicate our death plan to loved ones they can help us find creative ways to sprinkle the ideas/themes/values into the situation at hand.
Life is always preparing us for death
I love this idea from Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön. When we’re fully present in the moment (take a second right now and notice the moment you’re in – where are you? What time of day is it? What are you wearing? What are you reading this on? What can you smell, taste or hear?) when the moment is over it’s gone – dead – there will never be another exactly like it. And when we can notice these little “deaths” throughout the day we can see that life is constantly preparing us for death. Constantly teaching us to trust and let go. Constantly asking us to live fully now.
Another way to think of this concept is that every night we go to sleep – we lose consciousness (just like we will when we die) and every morning we are “born again”. Life and death are just part of the natural cycle of things.
“The way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with the greatest depth is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost.” Irvin Yalom
The gifts of death
Death gives us a sense of urgency and we can use that “time running out” feeling to fuel us to create a life we’re happy with. To work towards our “must-do” list. To make sure that we’re moving through the world in a way that’s aligned with our values. So that when we reach our death bed we can greet death with the peace that comes with knowing that we lived a full, true, and beautiful life with however much time we were given.
Everyone’s path to making peace with death is unique AND I believe we can all get there. If you’d like company along the way, some guidance, encouragement, and a safe space to explore your fear of death or unfinished grief – that’s what I’m here for. You can schedule a discovery call here.
Fun fact: they’re doing some really cool science around helping people with their fear of death using psilocybin (a.k.a.magic mushrooms). Roland Griffiths is a psychopharmaceutical researcher at John’s Hopkins University and he found that 75% of patients who were facing a life-threatening illness reported a significant reduction in fear and anxiety about death after a single dose of psilocybin in conjunction with limited psychological counseling. And the best news is that when they followed up 6 months later the effect lasted. They theorize that it softens our sense of ego and increases openness, prosocial behaviour, and creativity. The participants said they found the experience deeply meaningful and were left with a sense that in the grand scheme of things everything will be okay. (cue Bob Marley – “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing cause every little thing gonna be all right”) While we wait for this to become wildly available we’ll have to dig into and rewrite our death stories, create a plan to meet death, and find our own path to making peace with death.