Is Becoming Wise the Essence of “Dying Well?”

As the conscious dying movement continues to grow, so do questions about “dying well.” Does the notion of dying well imply that death is yet another thing to accomplish or strive to do perfectly?

Photo credit: © Stephen Jenkinson “Die Wise” video trailer

Often dying well implies how someone actually dies – peacefully, painfully, aware, medicated, with regrets, ease or struggle.

But Stephen Jenkinson (aka Griefwalker), a well-known Canadian palliative care counselor, takes it a step – perhaps a giant leap – further with his new book Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul.

Upping the ante on an already touchy subject, his states outright that the dying have a moral obligation to die well. “Dying well is a right and a responsibility of everyone,” he writes. “It is a moral, political, and spiritual obligation each person owes their ancestors and their heirs.”

Don’t the dying have enough to deal with already?

But I admit, I’m fascinated with this idea that we humans have an obligation to die well, and more so, to die wise.

Just watching the short video trailer of the book brought many memories and questions to the surface. Both my life-partner Kate and my mom had a similar cancer, and died within a similar number of months after their diagnoses – Kate in twelve weeks, my mom in sixteen.

Yet how they brought their life’s wisdom forward was markedly different. Did either of them die well? Die wise?

The Common Ministry of a Rabbi, Buddhist and Christian Hospice Chaplain

What do a Rabbi, a Buddhist chaplain and former Evangelical Christian have to say about ministering to people who are nearing death? How does each tradition support someone in this state of being?

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These were among the questions posed as part of a recent Choosing Options, Honoring Options (COHO) event in Southern Oregon. The spring series is called “Facing Mortality: The Elephant in the Room.”

I attended a discussion about different spiritual traditions’ views on end-of-life issues. The five people on the panel work with palliative care and Hospice patients.

The presentation – which also included a Catholic priest and Presbyterian chaplain – did get into some specifics about God, impermanence, faith, and natural death versus assisted suicide. But those weren’t the pieces that I carried with me.

What I took away was much more simple. It was something all panelists agreed on. Their main common practice wasn’t based on comparative religion and finding overlaps from different spiritual traditions. Their common practice was based on a simple human act: Listening . . .

Do You Still Carry Your Childhood Beliefs about Death?

As a child growing up Catholic in the 1970’s, I was taught to face my own death every night. I doubt that was the intention of the simple bedtime prayer I said from age three until my early teens. But that was the effect.

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I imagine the prayer is familiar to some of you:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
and if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

This little rhyme put the idea of a “soul” or spirit into my awareness. The underlying assumption was that I, or my soul, somehow continued on even after death.

The prayer also offered me a taste of what it must be like to die. It must be similar to falling asleep, and never waking up again. I often wondered what that would feel like, and imagined falling asleep forever. And other questions popped up, too.

Where would I go? What about my soul? If Jesus or God “took it,” where would they take it?

Oddly, the possibility of dying in my sleep felt very real because of this seemingly innocent prayer. So I repeated it every night, without fail, just to be safe. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of dying. Then again, I wasn’t afraid of rain either. But I was told if I carried an umbrella, it might keep the rain away. And the adults seems to prefer that it didn’t rain.

So I carried my umbrella – and my beliefs – like they did.

Coming Out of a Different Kind of Closet

I’m usually quite comfortable talking about my life-partner Kate. But sometimes, especially when I meet new people, I find myself hoping the conversation doesn’t bring me to mention her name. My hesitation doesn’t come because she’s a woman. My hesitation comes because . . . she’s dead.

Even if I share this news in a softer way, people are often caught off-guard, which isn’t my intention. Whether I’m coming out as a lesbian, or coming out as someone who experienced the death of a soul mate, my intention is to be honest about my life.

Similar to my experience of coming out in the 1990s, talking about death means anticipating people’s potential discomfort. Sometimes people don’t know what to say or do. Or I can feel their pity and the assumptions they make about what it’s been like for me. This often shifts the energy of the conversation.

I don’t want to feel awkward about withholding a significant part of my life. And I don’t want to make other people feel awkward either. Rather than being self-conscious when I speak about Kate, I do my best to be conscious and real.

How to Know When You’ve Fulfilled Your Life Purpose

My friend Britt once joked that perhaps her Life Purpose was cheesecake. “What if,” she said, “when I’m in my 70’s, I make a cheesecake that changes someone’s life? And that is actually the reason I was born?” 

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As we laughed, I enjoyed the notion that what we’ve come here to do may not be as grandiose as we imagine. Somehow, this idea took the pressure off. What if I quietly fulfill my Life Purpose in an instant, without my knowledge, as I serve up late night chocolate chip pancakes to some friends?

Britt, I like the way you think.

But the relief I felt was temporary. I could still feel us both wanting certainty about our calling in life, wanting to know for sure that we were on the right track. Will we ever find and fulfill our mission in life? Deep down, I was still hoping my Greater Purpose meant doing something outstanding someday. That’s how you know your life has had meaning, right? When you’re on The New York Times bestseller list. Or nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But really, what is enough to make me feel satisfied with my life? How will I know when I’ve arrived?

I’ve accomplished all sorts of individual and professional goals. I’ve dedicated time and energy to my personal and spiritual growth. I’ve contributed to the wellbeing of my friends, families, and community.

And still, at times I wonder if I’ve done anything worthwhile with my life . . .