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In the Midst of Life We Are in Death

June 29, 2010

Tags: order, aging, children, compost, death, In the Midst of Life We Are in Death, Irvin Yalom, religion, Rinpoche - see: Sogyal Rinpoche, Sogyal Rinpoche, Yalom - Irvin

The unimaginable for all of us is that we will die.

Other people, of course, die. But not us. This is how we deceive ourselves.

Let’s undeceive: It is time that we lift the taboo around death. Death should be with us all the time, in our consciousness - because it is with us, in reality. It can happen any time: An accident, a bad diagnosis. Not to mention the daily little dying in tiniest pieces that we call aging. In the midst of life we are in death – as the old Church hymn sings. Death surely is the reason why we invented religion – because it is so damn hard to think the unthinkable.

Most of all, we want to protect our children from death. So we are building a world free of the dark side. Death is never mentioned. When somebody dies, we keep children away.

Of course, children are not stupid – they know about death, usually by age four: the hamster that lied stiff under the radiator one morning. The news and pictures of war on TV. Even the wilting bunch of flowers in a vase. Nothing will last forever. All beauty will end up on the compost pile.

But not talking about death makes it even harder for children: They have to hide their deepest fears from their parents, not to hurt their feelings (that is how childhood works: children protect their parents. All the time).

When I was five, my father took me to a patient who had freshly died overnight. I remember the day like few others. It was a sunny Sunday morning, but the room with the dead man was kept dark. The widow cried, but she had enough compassion for the little girl to hand me an apple. I stared at the form in the bed. The jaws were tied up with a white napkin as if the man had suffered from toothache. I smelled my apple. Was it bad manners to bite into the apple in the presence of a dead man? I decided it was, and just held my apple. The widow said her husband had been suffering for so long; now his suffering was over. My father took out his stethoscope, examined the body and confirmed he had died.

On the way home, I asked many questions – I was that why? Why? Why? kid.

Did it hurt me? I don’t think so.

Denial hurts children – it deprives them of the means to grow up. Nothing is sadder than an elderly person who panics about the subject. To acknowledge that death awaits each one of us at the end, makes us live our lives more mindful, more compassionate.

Proposal: Everybody should read Sogyal Rinpoche's "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying") once a year, as a way to face what is so hard to face. As a way to grow up. Alternatively, for an easier read, try: Irvin Yalom's "Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. "
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