What We Owe Those Who Are Dying

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?

Doing our inner work

I propose that we who care – as caregivers, support people, partners, children, parents, friends and health care professionals – have an equal and perhaps greater responsibility to do our inner work around death.

We owe it to those in our lives who are in the dying process to face our fears about death. We owe it to them to find ways to be in acceptance and service and deep love, despite our sadness or desire for their bodies to last longer.

We owe it to them and each other to get our shit together.

That doesn’t mean don’t grieve. That doesn’t mean pretend you have it all together and are aren’t affected by the changes happening. That doesn’t mean don’t express and release your emotions.

But it does mean we owe it to the dying and to ourselves to increase our inner awareness. To get in touch with how we deal with what life brings our way, and how we can choose to be more grounded, more balanced and more present even when we prefer someone wasn’t going to die.

The last gift we give

Stephen Jenkinson says in the Die Wise book trailer, “Dying wise is the last gift you have to render.” Likewise, I believe caring wise, supporting wise, loving wise is the last gift WE have to render as someone we love deals with their body’s physical decline.

Stephen goes on to say “If you love someone, you gotta die wise. If you care about the world that’s to come, you gotta die wise.”

To me, we can’t expect people to die well unless we find ways to support them in dying well. It’s not their obligation on their own. We’re all interconnected. Their deaths are our deaths. Our lives are their lives.

So I would add, if you love others and care about the world, “you gotta learn to support people in dying wise.” And you gotta do this by being wise yourself.

How do we do this? It will look different for each of us.

But we, as compassionate humans, can first and foremost look at our own unresolved issues with mortality so that we can be even more compassionate, present and loving support people. WE, as the ones without a diagnosis or advanced aging process, have the responsibility to face our own belief structures and emotional triggers around loss.

The self beyond the Superhero

My intention isn’t to create more pressure. I’m not suggesting that you as a caregiver or supporter become a better Superhero than you already are.

I’m not suggesting that you do more, say more, be more perfect, be more of anything – except your self. But I am asking you to tap into your wise self, the self that knows death is a mystery and is able to step fully into that mystery, leaving behind the earthly drama and agendas. The self that is beyond worry or judgment or fear. The self that is interconnected to all of humanity and knows what kindness and wisdom feel like.

It is our essence. It is in each of us.

And it is all we can truly offer.

When I reflect on this, I realize that uncovering this wise soul is one of the reasons I feel as passionate as I do about seeing death in a different light. I want to be able to look clearly at the places I still get stuck or go into fear. I want to be able to fine tune my response to obstacles I face and to learn to find peace and happiness from the inside out, so that when someone is dealing with cancer, illness, aging or other causes of physical decline, they don’t have to worry about their circumstances having a negative affect on me.

Being okay with death

When my mom was diagnosed with advanced stages of pancreatic cancer, I did feel I owed it to her to find a way to be “okay” with her dying, even though she wasn’t okay with it herself.

Did I have deep conversations with her about death? No. She was fairly depressed about the cancer, so I gave her a lot of space.

In our day-to-day lives, that involved watching Ellen Degeneres and The Price is Right together every morning instead of having meaningful discussions. It meant not being offended when she scrunched her face at the meal I made for her when it wasn’t appetizing. It meant encouraging her to decide who to give her jewelry and other belongings to so that she could have the power and gift of choice.

These were my ways of supporting my mom the best I knew how, and of allowing us both to deal with the situation in our own ways. I choose to accept what unfolded. Eventually, I believe she did too.

We do not have the responsibility to do anything “perfectly.” But we do – as openhearted and even broken-hearted people – have the responsibility to clear as much of our own fears so that they don’t impact our ability to be truly present with someone we love.

Yes, of course, we will fall short. We will make blunders and say or do unintentionally awkward or even hurtful things. But we can bring our unconscious assumptions and fears about death to the surface to be healed.

When we do that, we become conscious caregivers. Conscious friends and supporters and lovers and health care providers. Conscious about death AND about life.

Having conscious awareness

To me, this conscious awareness is what the concept of “die wise” brings forward. An opportunity to reach inside deep enough to find not our own limited wisdom, but ancient collective wisdom. A shared knowing that allows us to face the death of someone we love in a way that is personal in its connection, but impersonal in its blame or anger or sadness.

Can we find a way to stop blaming death? Can we find a way to mourn the temporary nature of our physical lives, and then learn to celebrate the temporary nature of our physical lives? Do we really want to or expect to live in these bodies forever?

In the beginning of Die Wise, Stephen says “. . . as a culture we have a withered psychology of coping and accepting where we once might have had a mythology and a poetry of purposed, meaningful dying . . . I discovered that few wanted to die well, fewer still, wisely. Most didn’t want to die at all, and they spent their dying time refusing to do so.”

With this in mind, he boldly declares, “I am demanding wisdom. I am making a plea for redeeming our way of dying.”

I am making a plea, too. To redeem our inner process of dealing with the death of those we love.

My plea is that you let go of regrets of how you dealt with previous deaths and look at what would be helpful for our own awareness in the future. I have plenty of things I would have done differently with my mom especially. Things I would have said, asked, did.

But my process with my mom was an amazing learning ground for eight years later, when my life-partner Kate had a similar cancer, with a similar prognosis.

What we owe ourselves

By the time I walked Kate’s journey with her, I had taken the responsibility of being a caregiver to a whole new level. To me, it meant cheering her on into the spirit world. It meant supporting her choices and weighing in on them only when she asked me to. It meant acknowledging we both wished things would have turned out differently, yet that we both knew things were happening exactly as they needed to, on a greater spiritual plane.

It was my responsibility to trust her process and mine, to trust our connection and love. I owed this to her. I owed this to myself. I owed it to everyone we knew. In this way, I helped create an environment in which Kate had the space to die well, to die wise.

So please don’t underestimate the power of your inner work. It matters!

Uncover your assumptions and fears about death. Get support. Find people to talk to openly. Let your heart expand to hold all that you’re experiencing. Connect with the spirit of who you are. Connect to your wise soul.

Ultimately, we owe it to ourselves and those we love to be wise beyond our years, to be wise even when we don’t think we’re ready yet. We owe it to each other to tap into the inner knowing that we didn’t even know we had. To know that moments of deep connection, however fleeting, are what being alive is all about.

In doing so, we can find ways to be caring beyond our years. To be kind beyond our years. To be patient beyond our years. To be aware beyond our years.

To find the most imperfectly unconditional love we can muster up and say, “It’s okay. I love you.” With or without words. With or without owing anybody anything.

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 “What We Owe Those Who Are Dying

  1. Makes me think that “…the space to die well…” is really the same as the space to live well. Not much difference. The space to be. To be whatever whenever, at this present point of our being. And to be accepted for that. And that is what deep love, and compassion, gets us to.

  2. Jen,
    I think this is the crux of the entire topic of death…and of life as well. It is deep wisdom you share, and a blueprint for a life well-lived. I aspire to live up to this ideal…and I know that I will need to keep coming back to this teaching.