There’ll come a time when all of us must leave here
Then nothing sister Mary can do
Will keep me here with you
As nothing in this life that I’ve been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying.
These are the opening lyrics from George Harrison’s The Art of Dying. I’ve wondered what it was like for George when he lay on his death bed as cancer took him in 2001. It is my understanding that he died peacefully, chanting Hare Krishna until the end. He was apparently true to his spiritual practice in the face of the ultimate adversity. In this post, I’d like to examine how we can learn the art of dying while still among the living.
Allow me to begin with an example of how not to do it. When I was six years old, I was walking on a pile of discarded tin cans. I lost my footing and fell to my hands. An old lid sliced my right hand open on the palm. Blood gushed profusely and the next thing I knew my father was carrying me to our car, on the way to the doctor’s office.
I was screaming in terror, “I don’t wanna die! I don’t wanna die!”
“You’re not going to die. You’re going to be okay,” Dad answered soothingly.
My pitiful display of fear at the sight of my own blood was in vivid contrast to the deaths of my father and sister. When I spoke to Dad about his upcoming 80th birthday back in 1995, he said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” That was months before the birthday and his health was stable at the time. He seemed to have a premonition of some kind, but he was handling it calmly, even gracefully. When my sister was diagnosed with a deadly melanoma last year, she was told she had only weeks to live. She assured me with the succinct statement, “I’m not in pain and I’m not afraid.” She moved through the ensuing weeks with a peaceful courage that was truly admirable.
Fear of death is common. Our loss of physical form and identity looms as the end of all we know and have. Yet, it seems that most people on the brink are able to find a deep peace in acceptance of their fate. They are able to make it a “good death.” The Art of Dying Well website, created by the Catholic Church of England and Wales, has the following to say about this concept.
“It might seem strange to think of death as something that you can ‘do well’. But, there are few things we would want more for ourselves and our loved ones than a good death.
If you are dying, it is likely that you will want to be at peace, as comfortable as possible and surrounded by those closest to you. You will probably want to die at home, and you will probably not want invasive treatment if it is clear that there would be little to gain from this.
A circle of support is important. Such a community might include (but is certainly not limited to) family and friends, carers, medics, a chaplain or a priest. This is relevant not just at the moment of death, but throughout the dying process. Having a community of accompaniment throughout the journey can help you to prepare by bringing consolation and spiritual peace.”
Other schools of thought maintain that we sow the seeds for a good death much earlier in our lives. Kahlil Gibran writes: “You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
“The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
“If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
We can live mindfully with regard to the time when we transition from these bodies to what lies beyond. In her book, The Seasoned Soul, Eliza Blanchard states in the chapter titled A Guide for the Journey, “Planning our routes to the end, and choosing companions to take it with us, is part of a mature spiritual practice. We learn from many faiths that to give our final journey the attention we would give to any trip adds depth and meaning to our living.
“Many who travel keep journals or blogs. Wouldn’t it be interesting to write down, draw, or imagine how we’d like this leg of our journey to go–what roads of forgiveness, compassion, and peace we might travel?”
The Art of Living leads us to successfully shaping The Art of Dying.