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Finding the Courage to Face Death

A Personal Perspective: A mindful method for working with dying.

Key points

  • New research reveals that our bodies respond to loss as they would to life threat.
  • Fear of death is a motivating principle of human behavior.
  • Mindfulness and compassion offer different alternatives.
  • By embracing mortality, we live more fully.
Source: congerdesign/Pixabay

For the past several months, I’ve been watching my mother die. It’s been a roller-coaster of exhaustion, disorientation, and confusion as I try to predict her needs, which are constantly changing, and divert a catastrophe. The uncertainty and stress seem endless. I’m barely sleeping. Within the course of a few days, my family was debating the pros and cons of assisted living or memory care. The conversation was interrupted by a sudden trip to the Emergency Room, and then a hospital admission. There were hopes for rehab and recovery, but soon it was clear that hospice was the next step. Nothing felt stable; the ground underneath me kept shifting.

I told a friend whose mother died recently what I was experiencing. She nodded. “I felt ‘unmoored,’” she told me. “It was not only the rapid changes. But the profundity of it. If we think about it, most of us haven’t lived in a world without a mother. They ground, anchor, and guide us—even with their flaws."

In my inner life, it's been hard to find balance. In my dreams, I’m trying to find my way through tunnels, going up and down staircases that lead to empty rooms. Sometimes I’m trapped, often lost, looking for direction, or worried about taking a wrong turn. I often don’t know where I am. I frequently wake up in a panic.

Recent work by the trauma expert Dr. Janina Fisher has provided a template as I try to comprehend this new territory. Fisher’s research on grief reveals that our bodies respond to loss as they would to life threat.

I thought back to reading The Denial of Death, a Pulitzer Prize-winning classic by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. His thesis, that we develop ways to fend off awareness of our vulnerability and mortality, has stayed with me for decades. He postulated that fear of death is a motivating principle of human behavior. We escape into the illusion that we are immortal. Reading Becker in one’s 20s is one thing. Seeing how it actually plays out in the culture, and in your own family, is another. Of course, we go into denial; it is difficult, messy, and painful. The decisions are wrenching. And, in our health care system, the supports around death and dying are limited and chaotic.

Wanting some guidance, I asked a wise friend, Terry Tempest Williams, an environmental activist and a visionary writer, for advice. She has written powerfully about her brother’s death and cremation in Erosion and her mother’s death in When Women Were Birds. “What should I read?” I asked innocently. She held me kindly and graciously with her gaze. “When my mother was dying, I read her face.”

“What?” I asked, not comprehending.

“I watched her face for hours, reading the lines, sitting with her, holding her hand.”

This made intuitive sense. For a number of years, I’ve been studying Zen koans, sparked by a class at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, taught by Gerry Shishin Wick, a scholar and Zen master, author of The Book of Equanimity.

In his The Zen of Therapy, psychiatrist Mark Epstein explains that a koan is meant to help someone reach an understanding beyond conceptual thought. One of the first koans I studied was, “What was your original face, the face you had before your parents were born?” It took me months to penetrate this koan and to see its nuances. It made sense for me now to be studying the lines of her face, which had seen the passage of over 100 difficult years. They seemed like roads into understanding her. This I could honor.

As I sat with my mother, from this mindful and compassionate perspective I realized that I was looking at the complexity of our relationship, and the process of death. I watched her struggle to breathe, to try to get out of her body, to get free. As I stayed, my ability to be with her and turn toward her with kindness strengthened. I could be by her side, quietly supporting her.

I remembered a podcast I heard with Terry Tempest Williams several years ago. The interviewer asked her about her tirelessness in the face of climate crisis. She responded, “I don’t turn away.”

My mother was dying of congestive heart failure. I’d been told by friends that this was a disturbing death to witness, as the person is basically drowning, and it is best not to watch. But what was the option? To let her die alone, medicated into a state of oblivion? What would it take to be present? Becker’s message was that by embracing our mortality, we live more fully, free from the anxious and destructive behaviors that stem from our denial.

I woke up at sunrise the next morning knowing that I wasn’t finished. Going back to sleep wasn’t an option. I wanted to shift the dynamics of the relationship. The drama and anger that had been its hallmarks required decades of my own therapy. Mark Epstein writes about the possibility of moving from grievance to gratitude, even for those who have endured parental disasters.

I gathered radiant tulips, lilies of the valley, and forget-me-nots from my garden, and brought them to her hospital bed. I thanked her, forgave her, held her hand, and told her we would not forget her. I held the bouquet to her nose. After inhaling the sweetness of the blossoms, she passed peacefully.

Integrating the reality of death isn’t just a challenge for our culture. It’s universal. In the Indian epic the Mahabharata, a wise king is asked to reveal the most remarkable thing in the world. He responds, “The most wondrous thing in the entire universe is that all around us people are dying and we don’t believe it will happen to us.”


Becker, E. (1997). The Denial of Death. NY: Free Press.

Williams, T.T. (2019). Erosion. NY: Sarah Crichton.

Epstein, M. (2023). The Zen of Therapy. NY: Penguin.

More from Susan M. Pollak MTS, Ed.D.
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