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Death, Fear and The Elephant In The Room

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There are very few irrefutable facts in this world that remain absolute. This is one: We all die. Yet it is a topic that rarely enters our conversations. We can talk to each other about the weather, the most minute details of our work, and even about who we slept with last night including what we did in the most graphic detail. We become fixated on a celebrated person's death and continually channel surf to get just one more media report about their life and how they died. Does Michael Jackson come to mind?

But in all of this, does it trigger water cooler discussions about death, its meaning in our life or what we believe comes after, what our medical wishes are, or what we want from our loved ones when our own death is near? These kinds of conversations seldom happen around the water cooler let alone among families and friends. In this age when visible underwear is a fashion statement and the most intimate details of our lives are readily available on line to complete strangers, it seems odd that we are only comfortable with the most surface conversations about death and dying.

Naturally, our discomfort is magnified a thousand times over when someone we love receives a terminal diagnosis. In spite of the immensity, or perhaps because of it, we find ourselves at a loss on how to talk about it. Words seem to become frozen in our throats from a fear that speaking them will somehow deepen the reality. Here's a case in point. A client's husband of 11 years was dying. She was devoted to him and only left his side to go home, fix dinner for their young children who were being cared for by her mother and then hurry back. She would give him daily reports about the homework assignments, home repair needs, and messages from the neighbors. But she couldn't talk to him about dying.

The heart shattering, mind stopping enormity of knowing he wouldn't be with her was just too much. She needed to pretend that he was going to get better and they were going to have the life they had promised each other. I came into his room one day while this conversation was happening. He was turned away and laid there silently. When she left the room a few minutes later, he turned to me and asked why she kept lying to him. He wanted to talk to her but he didn't know how. He didn't believe her that he would get better and he didn't believe she believed it either. He didn't know how to break the pretense.

Their experience isn't unusual. I have witnessed some form of this scenario with far too many. It's as if the dying process has already robbed us of our words that once so easily flowed and connected us to each other. Somewhere we have come to believe that if we don't talk about it, the other won't think about it and if they're not thinking about it, it's not happening. It's as if the proverbial elephant has taken up residence in our lives.

The travesty is that when we allow fear in any of its forms to stand in the way, we never get to have those conversations that ultimately provide comfort after the other has gone. There isn't a time to make amends for any wrongs, imagined or real, experience the deepening of the relationship that comes from sharing the journey no matter how difficult, or even begin planning together for what comes next. Too many times, we rob each other of good-by.

Fear becomes such a dominating force at this critical time in our lives. Fear blocks our words. It is the fear of saying something wrong. It is the fear of upsetting our loved one. It is the fear of losing control.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler Ross, the foremost expert on death & dying has taught us is this: There are few things more meaningful than being with another as they make their transition from this life to the next. This experience is one of the greatest teachers we can have. Death teaches us about life. It teaches us about our capacity to love. In the end, it teaches us that it isn't the words we say, but our courage to be emotionally and spiritually present in such a way that both the one leaving and the one being left behind come to fully understand love has no end.

The purpose of this blog is to encourage conversation about death & dying that goes beyond the superficial. We want to hear from you. We want this to be a forum that we can learn from each other's stories and find comfort in our shared experience. Please join us in this important conversation.

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