In the past few weeks, two important people in my life have suddenly passed away – my friend Kevin Carlberg (the brother of my girlfriend from college) and Gail Cohen (my dad’s first wife and my half-sister Rachel’s mom). These deaths have been shocking, sad, and painful for me. And, in the midst of my sadness I’ve once again been reminded of the magic, awareness, and insight that I often experience when someone close to me dies.
I find death so mysterious because it doesn’t make much rational sense and often seems so random and unfair. I also find it sad and frustrating that we don’t do a very good job in our culture of talking about, dealing with, or embracing death. It’s seen by most of us as a universally “bad” thing – awful, tragic, painful, hard, and negative in most cases. While all of these things can be and often are true for us about death, especially when the person who dies is someone we love and care about and/or happens to be someone we consider “too young to die” (Kevin was just 32 years old), there is so much more to it than just this.
As I’ve also experienced this past week and a half and at many other times in my life, there can be a great deal of magic, beauty, and joy that comes from death. Due to the fact that we often avoid it, don’t want to talk about it, or would rather not deal with it (unless we are forced to do so) – we miss out on the magical and positive aspects of death and in doing so we aren’t able to live our lives as deeply and with as much freedom as we could if we embraced death more fully.
Why we avoid dealing with death
There are many reasons we avoid dealing with or even talking about death. From what I’ve seen and experienced, here are some of the main reasons:
- It can be very painful, sad, and scary
- We often aren’t taught or encouraged to really deal with it – just to simply follow the “rules” and rituals of our family, religion, or community in order to get through it
- We don’t know what to say, how to react, and don’t want to upset people
- It can be overwhelming for many of us to consider our own death, or the deaths of those close to us
- We aren’t comfortable experiencing or expressing some of the intense emotions that show up for us around death
- Our culture is so obsessed with youth, beauty, and production (in a superficial sense), death is seen as the ultimate “failure” – the complete absence of beauty, health, and productivity
- It challenges us to question life, reality, and our core beliefs at the deepest level
For these and many other reasons, death is one of the biggest “taboo” subjects in our culture and remains in the “darkness” of our own lives on a personal level. Sadly, not dealing with, talking about, or facing death in a real way creates a deep level of disconnection, fear, and a lack of authenticity in our lives and relationships.
The magic of death
What if we embraced death, talked about it, or shared our thoughts, feelings, questions, concerns, and more about it with the people around us? While for some of us this may seem uncomfortable, undesirable, or even a little weird – think how liberating it would be and is when we’re willing to face death directly.
One of the highlights of my life was being in the room with my father and holding his hand when he took his last breath. It was incredibly sad, but at the same time deeply intimate, personal, and beautiful. He was there when I came into the world and I got to be there when he left. And, by facing death in a direct way – we can learn so much about life and ourselves, as I did when my dad died when I was twenty seven years old. As one of my mentors said to me years ago, “Mike, if you live your life each day more aware of your own death, you will live very differently.” This is true for all of us.
There are so many beautiful lessons that death teaches us, even in the midst of the pain, loss, confusion, anger, fear and more. When we’re willing to embrace death and remember that everyone and everything in physical form will eventually die, we’re reminded to:
- Appreciate ourselves, each other, and life – RIGHT NOW
- Let go of our attachment to other people’s opinions, our obsession with appearances, and our self consciousness about many aspects of our lives
- Connect to others in a deep, profound, intimate, and vulnerable way
- Speak up, go for what we truly want, and live in the present moment
- Be grateful for what we have and for life as it is, not “someday” when things work out perfectly (which never happens anyway)
Death can be one of the greatest teachers for us in life – but not if we spend most of our time avoiding it because it can be painful, scary and uncomfortable. Take a moment right now to think about some of the important people who have died in your life. What did you learn from them both through their life and their death? What gifts have you been given in the form of tragedy in your life? How could embracing death more fully impact your life in a positive and important way?
As we consider these and other questions about death, it’s obvious that the answers aren’t simple and easy...neither is life. However, when we’re willing to engage, embrace, and deal with death (and life) with a true sense of empathy, passion, and authenticity – we’re able to not only “make it,” but to actually learn, grow, and thrive – regardless of the circumstances and even in the face of death.