When I watched the video trailer for the new book Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul by Stephen Jenkinson (aka Griefwalker), I admit I felt a bit uncomfortable.
Photo credit: © Stephen Jenkinson “Die Wise” video trailer
I wasn’t uncomfortable with the topic itself or his bold idea that “it’s a moral obligation to die well.” I was actually quite moved by his courageous and controversial words. In fact, his ideas catalyzed my article Is Wisdom the Essence of Dying Well?
I felt uncomfortable because Thou Must Die Well seemed like a huge demand on someone who is dying.
I wanted to take the focus off of the person who is dying and put the attention onto those of us who care about them. I wanted to say “Wait! What about our obligation as loved ones? How can we ask or expect someone to ‘die well’ or ‘die wise’ if we don’t join them fully?”
But how can we join others in 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?
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?
Photo credit: istockphoto.com/kuzma
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 . . .
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?”
Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/mg7
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 . . .
As my grandma sits in her wheelchair, I lean in to say goodbye before I return home – 3,000 miles away from room #39 at Oak Hill Manor. We touch our foreheads together and I look into her eyes over the top of my glasses. Only inches away, she looks into mine.
“You are my perfect pigeon,” she says.
I laugh to myself because “pigeon” isn’t a pet name Grandma Gene has called me before, and certainly is not the choice bird for a compliment. I’m not sure what word she meant to say. But at her current stage of life, any connection is welcomed by me. I kiss her cheek softly for what may be the last time.
This moment and many others that could be sad or melancholy have actually been endearing. As my grandma’s physical and mental capacities shift, I’m reminded of both my mom and my partner Kate’s final journeys, when they seemed to age many decades in mere weeks due to cancer. The difference is that my grandmother really is in her 90s. And that she has Alzheimer’s. But otherwise, the signposts that she’s nearing the finish line in this body actually resemble theirs.
Perhaps most people resemble each other as this cycle of life is winding down. The way they move, speak, and blink more slowly – seemingly with little self-consciousness. I imagine it’s just what happens as the body and mind do what they do. And while witnessing this stage is often bittersweet, it is the sweetness that stays with me and makes my heart smile.