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A Few Thoughts On How to Face Suffering and Death

Consider my midnight musings on death.

Death is what many people fear the most. While Americans are said to rank the fear of public speaking higher than the fear of death, I’m quite certain this finding doesn’t reflect the real truth. Folks who fill out surveys probably worry that they may soon be called upon to speak in public, but see no imminent danger of dying.

As a test, just dangle them from the Golden Gate Bridge and offer them the choice of falling into the cold water below or signing on for a public speaking engagement.

“I don’t fear death itself,” many people tell me. “just dying.” Of course, people do fear death, because death ends a life—a monumental fact—and is therefore different from other anxiety-provoking events.

Impending death may not seem all that scary if it comes as a gentle docking after a long life well lived. But who asks us? Death comes any time it pleases and is always a looming threat. Suffering is hardest when accompanied by such questions as “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” and “How can life be so unfair to let me die so young (or in this way).”

Life isn’t fair and neither is death. But if we let ourselves be consumed with questions of “fairness,” we run the risk of digging ourselves deeper into despair, rather than discovering the opportunities for pleasure and meaning that are still available to us.

My mother, Rose, was terrified when she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer at forty-seven because she was convinced I couldn’t grow up okay without her. I was twelve at the time, and in a variety of trouble. “I can’t die,” I heard her tell someone on the phone. “Harriet is such a mess.”

I never thought of my mother as having had an especially deep connection to the natural world, but she was profoundly affected by visiting the Grand Canyon after her radiation treatments were over. A reassuring sense of her smallness and insignificance enveloped her.

If she died, she died. I’d grow up one-way or another. What would be would be. Instead of feeling daunted by her comparatively small place in the universe, she found it comforting to remember the vastness and mysteriousness of life and death. There is peace in letting go.

The peace that came over her settled in and stayed. When she got back to Brooklyn, fear shaped her life with a far lighter hand. She also listened to fear in order to act wisely. She made plans for me to stay with her brother Bo and his family in Brooklyn in the case of her death. She knew, and rightly so, that my father would not be able to take care of me on his own.

My mother experienced what some would call transcendence or “spiritual detachment.” This is a place you cannot “choose” but can only find in yourself. Paradoxically, detachment comes hand in hand with the capacity to be most fully alive and open to whatever is. The late writer Philip Simmons, diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrigs disease) at age thirty-five, speaks of this paradox--this inseparable combination of living fully and letting go. He calls this, “learning to fall,” the title of the book he wrote after becoming ill.

The “art of falling, ” or however you name it, sometimes comes through hard-earned, dedicated, daily meditative or spiritual practice. Sometimes, as my mother did, we find it by an act of grace. We can also be deliberate in preparing for death in specific ways that help us to spend our final time on earth in a state of peace and wholeness. Carolyn Conger’s book, Through the Dark Forest, is an excellent guide for transforming our life when we are faced with serious illness or impending death.

My mother, as it turned out, lived to be ninety-four years old. Her brother Bo, however, was killed in a car accident in his fifties. Death cares very little for our predictions or plans.