“Looking deeply, you don’t see birth and death; you see that there is a continuation. If you study more deeply, you will see more deeply.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
It was mid-August. We’d just arrived at our condo in Belize for a week’s vacation at the beach with my parents.
I logged into Facebook, and the first thing I saw was a collection of photos of my friend Marcos and the stark announcement that he was dead.
Marcos was my best friend’s brother-in-law; our paths initially crossed when we were both living in the Bay area in 2004. He was the best man and I was maid of honor at Vanessa and Merv’s picturesque Carmel wedding ten years ago. I remember how we were both so freaked out about giving our toasts at the reception. Though I hadn’t seen him for years, I’d always fondly remember Marcos’ boisterous personality, and we remained virtually connected via social media, of course.
I immediately called Vanessa. “Is it true?” I asked, hoping it was some sick joke.
She confirmed. He died of unknown, natural causes, just a week before turning 42. Her husband, my dear friend, had suddenly lost his only sibling and was naturally devastated. I cried for him, for their parents, for the tragic unfairness of it all.
I now live near a village called San Marcos, so often when I’m searching for something related to this community on Facebook, Marcos’ profile comes up. It’s eerie to know someone is gone from this earth but still appears alive and well on the web. I will be gone some day, but all my blog posts and profile pictures will live on.
And, in a certain, quite palpable sense, those who leave us for the next dimension (or whatever happens after this life), do live in our hearts and minds.
The fear of death is natural, given the predominant U.S. culture around the end of life. Too many of our elders are tucked away—out of sight, out of mind—in nursing homes. Funerals are somber and cloaked in black. Cemeteries are gray and sterile.
I prefer the Mexican/Latin American way. Grandparents live with their families ’til the end. Funerals are raucous celebrations. Cemeteries are places full of color, music and life intermingled with death.
Here are four ways I’ve found that have helped me get over my phobias around dying. May they be of benefit!
Simply getting older tends to introduce us to more death through the loss of loved ones. So just keep breathing and getting older. This one is easy!
2. Seeing the reality of death as transformation.
“Look at the cloud in the sky. The cloud may be afraid of dying, but there is a time when the cloud has to be transformed into the rain. But that is not really dying. That is changing form. The cloud changes into the rain and the cloud continues in the rain. If you look deeply into the rain you can see the cloud. There is no real dying. You continue to exist in many other forms. The cloud can continue in the form of snow, in the form of rain, in the form of a river, or in the form of ice. One day the cloud can become ice cream. If the cloud does not transform, how can we have ice cream to eat?” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
3. Working with death in meditation.
Preparing for death is also an intensely powerful and rarely taught practice. It is simply imagining the moment of our own death. This I learned from studying Tibetan Buddhism. It can be done in savasana (aptly named corpse pose), in sitting meditation or informally. I imagine myself on my deathbed, an old woman. I am surrounded by loved ones. I am calm and feel a sense of fulfillment for the good, long life I have lived. It is just a way of remembering: Life is short and it will end in death.
4. Being present with the dying.
Sit with one who is dying. Listen. Be there. Make eye contact. Do not shy away from them, even if they are in a hospital bed surrounded by machines. Death is a sacred time and the natural and necessary end for every last one of us. Let’s embrace it as such, rather than hiding or fleeing in fear.
Author: Michelle Margaret Fajkus
Editor: Toby Israel