I was talking with a friend the other day. In the past four years, she, her husband and her daughter have all experienced life-threatening illnesses. While telling me about how she has been living with all this, she says, "There is one truth that I've had to face. Death is our destiny."
Listening to her, I have what I call a "duh" moment. Of course, I know I'm going to die. But these four words — death is our destiny — really impact me. A succinct, almost poetic, acknowledgment of what we all know to be true. And there's something about the word "destiny" that feels more embraceable — almost noble — than the sense that death is something hanging over my head, like a guillotine.
Death, or at least talking about it, is a taboo in our society, nearly a stigma. How can we normalize the topic of our mortality? How can we start exploring the hard questions, the ones we would rather run away from? One way is to have open conversations about death, optimally before the Grim Reaper is waiting on our doorstep.
There are many ways to start a dialogue and begin asking these questions. One way is through watching relevant movies, such as "Departures," a Japanese film about a young man, Daigo, who unwittingly becomes an undertaker. His mentor teaches him the old ways of preparing the body, honoring and being attentive to the dead, coming to terms with death lovingly. How can we face death more fully and not reactively back away from it?
"Ikiru," ("To Live"), the quintessential film about death, is also Japanese. Faced with a terminal diagnosis, Kanji journeys through several stages on his way to accepting death. He cycles through several steps on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' map of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. How can we allow room for our sorrow, grief, anger, regret, bewilderment, and whatever other feelings might arise? Finally Kanji spearheads a project for the community and finds meaning in his life. How might we create meaning or find more significance in our life?
In "A Single Man," George experiences a heightened sense of life in the course the day he believes will be his last. He makes deep eye contact with others, and takes in and appreciates the simplest aspects of life: flowers, animals, neighbor children. Knowing he will soon cease to exist, he perceives beauty in the everyday. How can we find more beauty in the small things of our day-to-day life?
Our 79-year-old heroine in "Harold and Maude" chooses her death consciously, living joyfully until the last moment; she embraces life while being completely aware of death.
Each of these films points to ways of exploring dying so that we may live more deeply and richly, and perhaps explore living so that we can die more peaceably. Each of our four protagonists serves as a role model: Daigo shows us how to be intimate with death; Kanji, the importance of allowing our feelings and living a life of meaning; George, the power of presence; and Maude, how to embrace death.
Instead of making a pariah of death, we can invite it to the table. By befriending our mortality, we can live our lives more fully. By exploring the challenging questions, we may find more peace, even if we don't find concrete answers.
I'll leave you with a provocative quote from Plato with which you can start your own conversation:
"No one knows whether death, which people fear to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good."
Laurel Miller and Marla Estes, M.A. will host a "Death Café" (www.deathcafe.com) from at 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9. For information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ashland Daily Tidings invites Rogue Valley residents to submit 600- to 700-word articles to Sally McKirgan, email@example.com.