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 wisest moments

I haven’t actually read Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul yet because it just came out last week. But as I mentioned, watching the video trailer for the book has given me plenty to think about in the meantime.

Regardless of Stephen Jenkinson’s meaning, to me being “wise” implies honesty, truth-telling, and inner knowing. It requires a stillness and reflectiveness within oneself. Words spoken or acts done out of wisdom are profound. And often quite simple.

Based on my own conjecture of the phrase, I believe I had the grace of witnessing my partner Kate “die wise.” She surprised me with new wisdom and insights every day. She demonstrated how to embrace a range of emotions and be okay with what unfolded. And she showed me how to face death with the same deep joy and peace with which she lived her life.

But I’d like to talk about my mom instead, who died eight years before Kate.

My mom had recently retired. She was playing tennis regularly, excited to travel more. At age 61, a time when she imagined the next stage of her life was just beginning, she had to come to terms with the final stage of her life instead.

Perhaps one of the wisest moment of my mom’s dying process was before the prospect of death really sunk in.

It was the same day as her exploratory surgery. The surgeon delivered the news privately to me and my step-father first. Then to my mom, with other family members present.

With all of us witnessing, he told her they couldn’t do surgery to remove any cancer because it was already too widespread. No one had being speaking about cancer before this moment, so it was indeed a surprise to her. My mom’s jaw dropped open as she audibly gasped at the doctor’s words, her hands covering her mouth.

We all started crying. There was nothing to say.

And then my mom spoke the ultimate understatement:

“Well, that’s a bummer.”

With tears of heartache still salting our faces, we all laughed. She was offering a moment of relief, not indifference. And she was offering a moment of wisdom, no matter how fleeting or unintentional.

I believe my mom did the best she could before her death. For better or worse, exhaustion slowly replaced her disbelief of what was happening. She died peacefully, in her home, in the loving presence of her husband and siblings.

Did she die well? Is that what dying well is about?

The wisdom of unlearning

I’m not sure if my mom would have said she died well or wise. She struggled daily with the shock of the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. She navigated what I now consider an unnamed, quiet depression. Her grip on controlling things around her got tighter, not looser.

Though barely spoken aloud, I witnessed her framing the cancer as a punishment for choices she made in her life.

Should I have expected her be more wise? To rise to the occasion with more insight?

My best guess is that she may have done things a bit differently if she had a second chance at dying. Perhaps she would have talked about her feelings more and watched less television. Perhaps she would have allowed friends to visit her and been less self-conscious and ashamed of having cancer. And perhaps she would have acknowledged that God wasn’t judging her, she was only judging herself.

Would this have been a “wiser” death?

And yet, there were many moments of beautiful wisdom.

In her wisdom, she chose to stop chemo treatments that were making her feel miserable. She charmed the hospital nurses with her smile and kindness, even when she wasn’t feeling good. She didn’t eat when she didn’t want to eat. She wore Groucho Marx glasses and a propeller beanie cap on my birthday, two weeks before her death. Her eyes got brighter and her fear . . . well, her fear ebbed and flowed.

Wise? Wiser?

In the video trailer, Stephen says: “Dying could be, must be, the fullest expression and incarnation of everything you learn.”

I think this was true for my mom. She learned kindness and humor. She learned fear, shame and guilt. She learned awe and gratitude. She learned stubbornness and humility. She learned both control and powerlessness. And she embodied them all fully in her dying process.

This may or may not be what Stephen Jenkinson means. But it is true.

And so perhaps to die wise also means to “unlearn” that which no longer supports our wellbeing or that of others? As Stephen offers, “. . . you have to lose a lot of other things that are not wisdom to come up with sanity.” Clearly, this doesn’t just apply when we know we are dying soon. I would like to lose a lot of things that aren’t wisdom, too.

To die wise, start now

At the beginning of his book, Stephen says: “Dying is a life’s work.” We live our entire lives until the moment we die. We bring everything to our death, whether sudden or slow or somewhere in between. Dying is the culmination of who we are in these bodies.

My mom wasn’t prepared for the possibility of death. So how could she be expected – or obligated, as Stephen asserts – to die well or die wise?

To me, this is exactly the point.

We are all going to die. We can expect that. We just don’t know when.

Because of this, I am eager to hear what Die Wise has to say about this moral imperative. I am going to die. But I don’t know when. Will I accept the challenge to die well? To die wise? And if so, when does fulfilling my obligation begin?

As my friend who’s been a Hospice volunteer for many years says, there is no dying process. “It’s all a living process, not a dying process,” I’ve heard her say. “We live until we take our last breath.”

Which implies only one thing for dying wise: We need to LIVE wise.

I have a feeling I’ll be discovering what that means for the rest of my life.

Live wise. Die wise. Start now.

Question: What does dying wise mean to you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Watch Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise book trailer below:

My next post will be an extension of this topic: What does it mean for caregivers, friends and family to support loved ones in “dying well” and “dying wise?” Do we have a responsibility to do so?

Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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3 thoughts on “Is Becoming Wise the Essence of “Dying Well?”

  1. Hi Jennifer
    Nice to read your perspective on die wise, I had an email from the orphanwisdomstephenjenkinson website news today about it.
    I saw the Grief Walker film a while back and that made me seriously ponder on many aspects of life.
    I am 58 (and a bit) years old and only have an older 67 yr brother left (as a blood relative) so have felt
    quite emotional of late. I survived prostate cancer (as did my brother) but feel life is slowly slipping away despite being in remission. I don’t have any anger at all towards life and think its more a case of enjoying each day from a mindfulness and holistic perspective. In life we never know when the time is coming to an end. Perhaps we carry a myth inside us that we will die but lets not talk or think about it.
    My view having been involved with Dying Matters (in the UK) and involvement in bereavement and palliative care settings is to listen to those that are near journey’s end.
    Being humble and as the good old Humanistic Therapist Rogers’s said ‘having unconditional love and being genuine’
    Be at peace

  2. The”Die Wise” trailer brings me to tears. So poignant are my memories of how my parents died wise – not perfectly – but humanly, lovingly, courageously wise…Thank you, Jen, for sharing this with us!.