We all know it: Sooner or later, each of us is going to die. In Buddhist traditions, meditating on death awareness is one of the oldest practices. Buddhist practitioners believe that by familiarizing ourselves with death, we are able to handle it better when our time comes and we ensure ourselves a good rebirth.
But here in the West, most of us don’t want to be confronted with the subject. Fear of death is at the core of countless other fears, phobias and disorders. We don’t like to think the seemingly unthinkable. Some of us are even convinced that mere thoughts of death will trigger the actual event. But as death is an essential element of life, ignoring it won’t make it go away. On the contrary, this often only causes the opposite to happen. Our fear of death slowly becomes a gigantic “elephant in the room”, possibly disguised as a different type of phobia or fear, or a general sense of unease.
So what happens when we do face our biggest fear? What happens when we confront ourselves with our own death? Here are some steps to help you figure out the answers for yourself.
Note: You might want to change the order of the steps below according to your personal preference. These steps are by no means meant as a set of rules, but rather as guidelines to help you navigate your own experiences, thoughts and emotions.
Contemplating death, whether because you are currently faced with the reality of dying, or because you want to get a better understanding of what it means to you, will give you a lot of new insights and emotions. Try opening yourself up to anything that arises. Find a calm spot to comfortably sit or lie down and let your thoughts wander off to explore your own mortality.
Imagine what your death will be like. Think of how you will die and try to see what this experience will be like for you. What will happen to your body and what will happen to your mind as you die? See if you have any beliefs about consciousness after death, or ideas about the afterlife. Then imagine your funeral. Think of how you would like to see this, if you want to be buried, cremated, or if you have other ideas.
Think of the world you leave behind, with everything and everyone you love in it, and how they will cope with losing you. Then imagine how everybody else is also going to die some day, just as you are. Regardless of age, religion, social status, wealth, and even health. Imagine how all the people who have ever lived on this earth have died, and how all the people who are yet to be born, will die. Think of how you will be part of this, and what this means to you.
Once you have fully imagined what it will be like to die, your emotions will automatically pick up on this. You might feel sad, angry, lonely, or scared. How do we process this inevitable loss of self? Of the world as we know it, with everything and everyone we know in it? We do this by grieving. Grief is the natural psychological, behavioral, social, and physical response that helps you recognize your loss and get ready for the longer period of mourning that follows.
According to the Kübler-Ross model, invented by a Swiss psychiatrist, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Not everyone goes through all of them, and you don’t necessarily need to in order to process your loss.
Allow your feelings to come and go as they do. Understand that not everyone experiences pain or sadness the same way, and therefore everyone mourns differently. What matters is that you do what feels good to you. Find support with your loved ones. Be kind to yourself. Allow for this process to last for however long it must.
After the process of grieving has unfolded on its own terms, you will notice you will at some point experience a certain sense of peace. The pain you went through will slowly subside and turn into a gentle sense of acceptance. You understand that whatever must happen will happen and have healed the hurt that the shock of death awareness has caused.
Once you are able to think about the reality of your own death, you will also be able to consider some of the practical matters attached to this. Here are some things you can do:
• Write up a will.
• Write up end of life instructions and appoint someone you trust to make decisions for you concerning your health care when you can no longer do this yourself.
• Give clear instructions on how you envision your funeral.
• Consider becoming an organ donor.
Now that you have looked death in the eye, you will still have some time before it will actually happen. Explore what has changed for you in this process, and how different you feel towards death now. Very likely, your outlook on life has shifted. You may find certain things to be more important now than you did before, like personal connections, friendships, simple moments that bring you joy. And on the other hand you may find that things that mattered a lot to you before, have lost their meaning. Assess this shift in your awareness and how this might influence your life.
Think of all the things you want to do, with the time you have ahead. Think of how you want to live your life and the goals you want to pursue. Think of all the things that make you truly happy.
Once you feel you have gone through a period of grieving and notice your emotions are more calm, or you even feel a sense of elevation and a renewed sense of happiness, it’s a sign you have transcended your fear of death. However, we tend to move through cycles of experience. All of the emotions that the realization you will die have caused, can resurface at any time as you move on with your life. Allow for this to happen when it does. Do not feel defeated, but accept that it’s all part of your own personal journey.
Fully overcoming the fear of death might happen in several cycles. But no matter how fast we proceed, we transform our fear with each step we take towards awareness.
What most of us are afraid of is not death itself, but our idea of death. Shaping these ideas with our own preferences and beliefs, will enable us to give death its rightful place within our lives. As Buddhist teacher Larry Rosenberg has said, “Learning how to die is also learning how to live.”
What if everyone mourns their own death, and thereby overcomes their fear of death while alive, and lives freely from then on? Death awareness deserves to be integrated into our lives, into our habits, and into our way of thinking.
Image credits: Bubba Sellars