Last weekend I attended a memorial service for a woman I’d known for fifteen years.
It’s a story you’ve all heard before. She was fine, couldn’t get rid of a cough, went to the doctor and received a stage IV cancer diagnosis.
I sat in the crowd, surrounded by people who loved her, and was reminded of a memorial service I attended twenty years ago, when I had just begun my spiritual practice.
My brother’s best friend had hung himself. It was a tragedy and everyone was shocked. I happened to be in New York and was able to attend the service.
As I walked uptown to the venue, I was nervous. I’d known this young man well and was both shocked and saddened by the loss. What could I say to his family? Truth is, we’re all uncomfortable with death. We avoid thinking about it, looking at it, talking about it.
Then I heard my meditation teacher’s words echo as my feet hit the pavement. “We do spiritual work to deal with death.”
What exactly did she mean?
I contemplated her words the whole walk there and when I arrived, I understood.
1. We are Not a Body
The primary reason that we are afraid of death is because we think it’s the end. It certainly is the end for our physical bodies and for our egos, but not the soul. For that part of us is eternal.
When we believe that we are more than a body, death ceases to have that terrifying hold. Instead, we can see it as a doorway through which we walk. Some call it a release. And if you’ve ever seen a corpse, you know that the person you loved is clearly not there anymore.
We are spirit beings have a human experience.
2. Live Today As If it’s Your Last Day on Earth
I first read this idea in a Buddhist text. Initially, I thought it was morbid - this day, my last? Back then, I was in my early 20s, and my life sprawled out in front of me. But as I sat with the idea more, it dawned on me that the point was to truly live this day. Feel this day, embrace today.
It’s so easy to procrastinate and think, “I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll tell her next week.” But what if next week never comes? As Happiness guru, Robert Holden reminds us. “Procrastinate tomorrow.” And live today to the fullest.
Be one hundred percent in with everything and everybody.
One of the reminders we get when a loved one dies is to come back to that, how precious every moment of life is. And to remember to really live this day.
“It's only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth - and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up - that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
3. The Fear of Death Prevents Us from Actually Living
As I dove into understanding my life and purpose, I began to see how much I was afraid of living and this was intricately tied to the fear of death.
This propelled me into wanting to make peace with death, to greet it not from a place of anxiety but as an opportunity for a new adventure.
Truth be told, no one wants to suffer and the thought of writhing in pain, or experiencing some kind of horrific ordeal is not what anyone, including me, wants.
Yet all of us at some point, sooner or later, has to recognize that we will die. It is not an if, it is a when. And as we accept that notion, that part of us is finite, we open up more to life.
As Carl Rogers says, "You can't possibly be afraid of death, really you can only be afraid of life."
People frequently write and speak about the power of meditation and spiritual work to help us live more full and complete lives with increased awareness and presence. And one of the most significant ways this work manifests in our lives is in helping us embrace death as much as we embrace life.
It allows us to accept death as part of life’s sacred journey, to know that there isn’t anything to be afraid of, that death isn’t really the end but simply a doorway into the next reality. As Socrates eloquently stated:
To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils.