by Rev. Diannia Baty
I have had to cross this bridge many times in my life. In fact before I was twenty one, I lost two babies. I got to hold them and love them for a brief amount of time. I also lost my husband and became a widow very young. Not much later, I lost my sister. She died at age thirty-two suddenly in her sleep. I lost all my grandparents, my mother and my father and later on another husband made me a widow again after ten months of marriage. I lost my dear friend and first cousin a year ago. I think when it comes to death, you could say I have been there and done that.
I have actually met someone who had not experienced a death in his immediate family at the time we met. He was very blasé about death. The extraordinary thing about this man is that he was a funeral director and had actually owned his own funeral home. I found this fascinating. He was kind of pompous and always impeccably dressed and groomed.
I asked him A TON OF QUESTIONS! Most of us shy away from the subject. I wanted to know more about what death was from this man’s perspective.
I asked him what if anything could he tell me about how he personally viewed death and why did he take this path? He told me that it had a funny mixture of a deeper appreciation for life combined with being very cynical. He told me that for example, death could be humorous and started to regale me with stories that were hilarious. The stories were funny and I found myself laughing. He looked at me with surprise and was glad that I got it. He talked about a certain decorum and presence that was required of him. He had to appear to be in control at all times. He was fastidious about his hands and nails. He got a manicure once a week. He told me that his hands were used in so many ways from handing out tissues to holding someone up.
He wore only moderate after shave and Old Spice was the subtle whiff I kept getting. I realized suddenly that I really liked this scent. He talked in a low hushed tone normally. I suppose that came from talking to the families who came to him to make arrangements. He said he got into the business as a teenager as an after school job and then just continued on after he graduated. He said something that I too believe and that is that death was a very intimate time for those left behind. He had seen the best and the worst of people during funerals. He said what he had come to understand is that it seemed easier somehow to him to prepare the body of someone who had lived a long and good life. Small children and babies were hardest for him because their lives had been cut short. He had thought long and hard about what it would be like when his parents died. They were both getting on in years and both had health issues. He said that what people need to understand is that death is not the scary thing that everyone thinks it is. To him it was a matter of fact point that we all die sooner or later. It was not about how we died but how we lived that mattered. The one thing that really bothered him was knowing that someone had really wasted their life and that he had to prepare their body for their final journey. I asked him if he believed in life after death.
He said yes he did but people should revere life and celebrate every moment and that in the celebration of life he thought it made death easier somehow. Death was the jumping off point of this incredible ride called life. He said it wasn’t a question of if death was fair or not it just was what it was. I noticed his hands sweating while he had this conversation with me. I have often wondered if he has experienced a death of a family member by now and how he handled it.
Lately I have been with quite a few baby boomers that have ill parents or have recently lost them to illness or accident. The torch gets passed and suddenly you are the oldest or the one who takes care of mom or dad and you become the parent and not the child. It is you who takes care of everything. You may have a friend or a family member who is close to your age die. It brings death closer and makes it more of a reality. You suddenly feel it closer than you have ever felt it. What you once thought was far off is not so far off anymore.
When the grieving comes and it always will, you will mourn and miss them and think about days gone by and the things you shared and your past becomes a little bit more real.
You will think about what you did or didn’t do and what you wish you had done. You will wonder if you will ever make it to Egypt to see the pyramids or take up painting or writing. Suddenly you find yourself taking up an old hobby that you haven’t touched in years and calling some old friends that you haven’t contacted. You will laugh and you will cry and you redefine what life means to you. Every moment counts and is so precious. I don’t fear death. The only thing I would say I fear is not fully living up to my potential and wasting time. I keep words such as won’t, can’t, shouldn’t, impossible, and someday out of my vocabulary and my thoughts. I would rather have the novel half written than never written if death comes to me suddenly.
If you have elderly parents who are ill or frail, laugh with them more and be silly and not so somber. Watch funny movies with them and read to them. Enjoy the time that is left to the fullest. Create some good memories.
The point should not be that they are gone but that they were in your life in the first place.
It is truly a great cosmic paradox that one of the best teachers in all of life turns out to be death. No person or situation could ever teach you as much as death has to teach you. While someone could tell you that you are not your body, death shows you. While someone could remind you of the insignificance of the things that you cling to, death takes them all away in a second. While people can teach you that men and women of all races are equal and that there is no difference between the rich and the poor, death instantly makes us all the same.
The question is, are you going to wait until that last moment to let death be your teacher? The mere possibility of death has the power to teach us at any moment. A wise person realizes that at any moment they may breathe out, and the breath may not come back in. It could happen any time, in any place, and your last breath is gone. You have to learn from this. A wise being completely and totally embraces the reality, the inevitability, and the unpredictability of death.
Any time you’re having trouble with something, think of death. Let’s say you’re the jealous type, and you can’t stand anyone being close to your mate. Think about what will happen when you’re no longer here. Is it really all that romantic that your loved one should live alone with no one to care for them? If you can get past your personal issues, you’ll find that you want the person you love to be happy and to have a full and beautiful life. Since that is what you want for them, why are you bothering them now just for talking to someone?
It shouldn’t take death to challenge you to live at your highest level. Why wait until everything is taken from you before you learn to dig down deep inside yourself to reach your highest potential? A wise person affirms, “If with one breath all of this can change, then I want to live at the highest level while I’m alive. I’m going to stop bothering and judging the people I love. I am going to stop judging myself. I’m going to live life from the deepest part of my being.” I am going to acknowledge God as my guide and the love that God is.
This is the consciousness necessary for deep and meaningful relationships. Look how callous we get with our loved ones. We take it for granted that they’re there and that they’ll continue to be there for us. What if they died? What if you died? What if you knew that this evening would be the last time you’d get to see them? Imagine that an angel comes down and tells you, “Straighten up your affairs. You will not awake from your sleep tonight. You’re coming to me.” Then you’d know that every person you see that day, you’d be seeing for the last time. How would you feel? How would you interact with them? Would you even bother with the little grudges and complaints you’ve been carrying around? How much love could you give the ones you love, knowing it would be the last time you’d get to be with them? Think about what it would be like if you lived like that every moment with everyone. Your life would be really different. You should contemplate this. Death is not a morbid thought.
Death is the greatest teacher in all of life.
Take a moment to look at the things you think you need. Look at how much time and energy you put into various activities. Imagine if you knew you were going to die within a week or a month. How would that change things? How would your priorities change? How would your thoughts change? Think honestly about what you would do with your last week. What a wonderful thought to contemplate. Then ponder this question: If that’s really what you would do with your last week, what are you doing with the rest of your time? Wasting it? Throwing it away? Treating it like it’s not something precious?
What are you doing with life? That is what death asks you.
You find out that all the pettiness and irritations that you thought was so important was not important at all. You discover that it is fine to eat a sandwich for dinner and play ball with your son. It is not a big deal if traffic is backed up. You spend the time listening to a cd instead and relaxing. Suddenly those plants that you have that are starving for attention get watered, trimmed and fertilized.
Let’s say you’re living life without the thought of death, and the Angel of Death comes to you and says, “Come, it’s time to go.” You say, “But no. You’re supposed to give me a warning so I can decide what I want to do with my last week. I’m supposed to get one more week.” Do you know what Death will say to you? He’ll say, “My God! I gave you fifty-two weeks this past year alone. And look at all the other weeks I’ve given you. Why would you need one more? What did you do with all those?” If asked that, what are you going to say? How will you answer? “I wasn’t paying attention . . . I didn’t think it mattered.” That’s a pretty amazing thing to say about your life. It all matters. Every bit of your life matters.
Death is a great teacher. But who lives with that level of awareness? It doesn’t matter what age you are; at any time you could take a breath and there may never be another. It happens all the time — to babies, to teenagers, to people in mid-life — not just to the aged. One breath and they’re gone. No one knows when their time will be. That’s not how it works.
So why not be bold enough to regularly reflect on how you would live that last week? If you were to ask this question of people who are truly awakened, they wouldn’t have any problem answering you. Not a thing would change inside of them. Not a thought would cross their minds. If death were to come in an hour, if death were to come in a week, or if death were to come in a year, they would live exactly the same way as they’re living now. There is not a single thing they carry inside of their hearts that they would rather be doing. In other words, they are living their lives fully and are not making compromises or playing games with themselves. They take their spiritual practices very seriously and don’t just play with them.
You have to be willing to look at what it would be like if death was staring you in the face. Then you have to come to peace within yourself so that it doesn’t make any difference whether it is or not. There is a story of a great yogi who said that every moment of his life he felt as though a sword were suspended above his head by a spider web. He lived his life with the awareness that he was that close to death. You are that close to death. Every time you get in the car, every time you walk across the street, and every time you eat something, it could be the last thing you do. Do you realize that what you’re doing at any moment is something that someone was doing when they died? “He died eating dinner . . . He died in a car accident, two miles from his home . . . She died in a plane wreck on a trip to New York . . . He went to bed and never woke up . . .” At some point, this is how it happened to somebody. No matter what you’re doing, you can be sure somebody died that way.
More than anything else it is important that you keep the connection and communication with God strong and alive. Talk to God on a regular basis and don’t wait until you have arrived on the other side. Do it now and watch the richness and the miracles in your life unfold.
You must not be afraid to discuss death. Don’t get upright about it. Instead, let this knowledge help you to live every moment of your life fully, because every moment matters. That’s what happens when somebody knows they only have a week left. You can be certain that they would tell you that the most important week they ever had was that last week. Everything is a million times more meaningful in that final week. What if you were to live every week that way? This is just something to think about.