The romance of death

Romance-of-deathDuring my father’s last days and into the mourning process that followed, I encountered something I think of as the romance of death. Everyone we talk to has his or her own unique  inner vision of what dying means.

I have written plenty about how mass culture consistently portrays death as a tragedy, a scary story, or an occasion of great sadness. Then I bray that the fear of death is so common and profound it becomes a major motivational force used in many cultural traditions including all types of marketing.

Afraid to die? Worried about you or your family? Buy something.

But there are some among us, myself included, who view death as a great journey, a cosmic adventure. We reject the idea that death is a horrible thing. We romanticize death as a transition, a portal through which we travel to a heavenly life. Death is a fresh start to another existence.

In my case I’ve read books about near-death experiences, spiritually transformative experiences, out-of-body experiences, and mystical experiences. I’ve talked with people who have had them. I get excited about all the possibilities that may possibly await us.

It is with that conceptual filter that I viewed the arc of my father’s physical decline. While I feel sad that I no longer have a physical dad to talk with, I honestly feel a sense of celebration that he did everything he needed to do here. He is free to fly with Mom.

EVERYONE HAS A STORY

Everyone has a different idea about what death entails. That’s what close friends and relatives of someone dying deal with — the wide variety of personal interpretations of the death experience. The topic often does not come up in everyday conversation until death or dying is actually here and now, sometimes without much advance notice.

We experienced this when my mother died in December of 2011. Some people wanted to turn it into a great loss. “Sorry for your loss” is a major tagline. I appreciate the love and sentiment behind it, but it’s not like we lost a Super Bowl or an election. To me, a loved one changed form. I believe that she is still here, just beyond the reach of my physical senses.

“She is with the Lord now,” others would say. People who have a religious outlook on life project their story of faith and/or dogma onto the story. They interpret every sequence of events in that well-traveled path in their faith-based consciousness. Good for them, not my path.

Even people who are religious sometimes treat death along the lines of bad luck, a shame, a burden, or sadness. It seems like a disconnect in faith to proselytize about living with Jesus yet still paint death in sad or tragic terms.

Some people interpret how sad you feel about someone’s death as a sign of the intensity of your love for that person — that somehow it is disrespectful to view passing in any happy way. It’s as if you have to put on a good grief show to satisfy them.

When my mother died, my father was of course sad. He had spent nearly 75 years together with that woman. Yet out of his love for her he was relieved that she no longer had to suffer. We in turn feel the same way for him. He had a pretty painless and comfortable two and a half years after my mother died, but in the very end, like in the last ten days, the pain appeared and changed everything.

HOLLYWOOD

When I was a kid my father took me to Los Angeles to see the USA-USSR Track Meet and a little bit of Hollywood. One night we went to a midnight screening of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. There is a scene in the movie where a guy  kicks a pail and dies.

“He kicked the bucket!” Dad announced for all to hear with a loud, hearty laugh. His explanation helped others get the visual pun.

Hollywood has some legendary endings. Hollywood makes death a dramatic event. Much of the time it is quick — bang, bang, you’re dead. At other times it is IV drip slow intended to jerk some tears around.

During my father’s final days, it was so tempting to wait for him to say something profound or symbolic, the genesis of years full of pondering.

“Rosebud,” like in Citizen Kane.

“It is a good day to die,” like in Little Big Man.

We hovered around Dad waiting for him to surprise us with quotable gems. Sometimes he would say things out of the blue as if talking in his sleep. He seems to have led a few meetings, at one time speaking in his robust school superintendent’s voice from forty years ago.

Dad never talked about his own death except in practical terms like cemetery details. He did not wax philosophical about it and rarely mentioned it. He never said anything like, “I’m dying.” Whatever he had going on on his inner universe stayed in his inner universe.

But he did say, “Beautiful flowers … the sky is so perfect … nice and clear.”

What a tease!

IT’S NOT TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE

I remember in 1977 when Dad was writing his retirement speech. He liked to sprinkle humor into the mix, so he wrote, “Superintendents never die. They just lose their faculties.”

Part of the romance of death is “last conversations.” People visited Dad, some anticipating a good wrap-up show, a Tuesdays with Morrie thing.

One woman asked Dad if he had any words of wisdom to leave behind. He seemed to struggle for something good, knowing that the spotlight was shining on him. Finally, he said, “Obey the Lord.”

Huh? Dad, is that you?

Dad was a spiritual man in his actions, but not in his vocabulary. He rarely if ever preached or opined on religion or the meaning of life. He taught by example over rhetoric, which is probably why he struggled with the question.

People called to ask if they could visit. They wanted to share memories, a few chuckles, a sweet good-bye. It was hard to tell them it would not happen the way they most likely imagined.

Book authors and movie-makers love to depict deathbed scenes. Those depictions presume that the person dying still has the mental faculties to track conversations, retort with pithy comebacks, and divulge juicy, long-held secrets. Dad spoke mostly in energy through his hand squeezes, twinkling eyes, and angelic smile.

During one last conversation, he said to me, “You … are … a … great … [shrug].”

Superintendents never die.

WOO-WOO EYES

For most of my life, I have been of a woo-woo lover. I enjoy pondering universal mysteries (as this blog amply illustrates) and a big part of that is what happens when we die. Are we here for a one-trick pony show or is there more to life that we’ll discover when we pop out of our bodies and zoom through the tunnel at the end?

My father apparently had little curiosity about the great beyond. I did not push my views onto him just as he did not push his onto me. I look with amusement at how I yearned for my father to break silence and share precious clues about his journey, which someday will be a journey for me, too. Will his journey support my vision of reality, or will I have to remodel my house of beliefs?

Perhaps all of the woo-woo phenomena that sound so incredible do, indeed, lack credibility and are neuronal show business. (I still don’t think so, but its not as if I haven’t been fooled before.)

To my surprise, about a year ago Dad read — and enjoyed — Proof of Heaven, the tome by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander on his near-death experience. Yet Dad got bored with Glimpses of Eternity, Raymond Moody’s book about shared death experiences and deathbed visions. The Guggenheim’s Hello from Heaven, a study on after-death communication, didn’t float his boat either.

Many of my friends characterize dying as a sacred adventure. Some had their own near-death experiences where they ventured out of their bodies. They had an ecstatic time and have no fear of death. A few have written books. So they, too, have their own unique take on someone dying, and it’s hardly ever sad. They view death as graduation from Earth School, the reunion of a lifetime, and the coolest trip ever.

My conception of the universe may prove to be entirely imaginary, but I love thinking of Dad flying with Mom. It is a vision of joy I hold sacred.

EACH TO HIS OWN

We all have our own conception of how the world works and what meets and greets us when we die. My dad did not share his vision, so in the end we go with what he expressed that he wanted when he was more consciously able to make his choices.

In my own case, I want a death that is part Monty Python and part Journey of Souls with some Johann Sebastian Bach accompaniment.

While Dad was dying I watched Private Life of Plants, a BBC mini-series featuring David Attenborough about the incredible ways plants have evolved. The intricacies are astounding. Watching this, I couldn’t help thinking that mass culture has dumbed human death way down into a soap opera far inferior to its true cosmic design. The whole of life may be much more wonderful than we know.

Real conversations

SONY DSCHave you ever had a break-up conversation? Most of us have at one time or another.

They can come at different times. Sometimes it’s the announcement that this new relationship is not going to fly. One of you wants it but one of you doesn’t.

Sometimes it’s after a substantial trial period. Again, one of you wants to keep on trucking but one of you is ready to take the next off-ramp.

It could come years later after a relationship or a marriage has been pursued. It runs out of gas or one of you loses control and drives off the road.

So you have the break-up conversation. Sometimes it comes as a relief that a decision is being made to cut the losses and change course. Sometimes it is the talk from hell where accusations and torrents of anger fly like stinging yellow jackets.

And yet I am curious: how true and intimate are those conversations? How much inner truth do we offer at the end, and is it better or worse than what we offered at the beginning? Or do we instead work on damage control and political expediency and say something phony? Or do we retreat and plot revenge and punishment?

DEATH AND DYING

Another conversational abyss for many people is the topic of death and dying.

I have been around so many people, including my parents, who did not want to share their views about the end of life. They did not openly philosophize about what happens after they flatline. Is there still juice at the end or are we completely dried out and crumbly?

When people keep their feelings and opinions locked up tight inside themselves, it creates some real issues during the end-game. For one thing, it makes it hard for the caregivers and survivors to know exactly how to please those who are dying. If you gave no special requests, you get what you ask for.

For the people dying it means that they suddenly have to confront their fears or beliefs unassisted. Maybe they can no longer communicate. If it was too scary to discuss during the healthy days, when things were normal and death was not imminent, imagine it now.

People are afraid to talk about death, as if openly discussing it might bring it on faster or freak the dying person out.

When there are conversations with a dying person, how truthful are they? Is there any reality to it or is it fluff and show? I know that if I was on my deathbed, I would want to discuss my future and not pretend that I was going to get well soon. I’d like to talk about the death that will happen when my ride from heaven comes.

Death is a taboo topic. Hospice chaplain and author Terri Daniel called it the new sex. “Launching a public dialog about death in today’s world is similar to how my generation — the Baby Boomers — broke through the taboo about discussing sex prior to the sexual revolution in the 1960s.”

SEX

And so yeah, then there is sex.

A lot of people are under the illusion that we’ve outgrown our culture of secrets, shame, and lies about sex. I don’t think so. I think a lot of conversations that could be intimate aren’t because they never occur.

Sex has often become things we do to each other, not so much things we feel. We often make love to people’s bodies, overlooking making love to their minds. We jump into erotic habits and rituals because we have been conditioned to do it that way, but it’s often taken for granted or conducted on auto-pilot.

Often people do not share their feelings about what they like and don’t like sexually, much less converse about their deepest feelings of what this dance means to them. Yet as someone who has written about sexual relationships, both in fiction and nonfiction, I am frequently aware of hidden motives, conflicts, and passions that are not communicated to partners for a variety of reasons.

Can you communicate that you feel alone during a sexual experience? Do you share with your spouse or primary partner the fantasies, hopes, or desires that are most meaningful or exciting to you? Can you share your erotic personality without censoring or playing it safe?

WRITER LESSONS

As a creative writer, I have often written scenes about how relationships form and sometimes how they end. I’ve written about death (and afterlife) and I have written about sex.

Fiction may be pretend, but fiction also allows authors to explore deep insights. You don’t have to worry about libel or slander or credibility of your sources. So as I mastermind scenes in creative writing, I bear witness to each character, their motivations, their aspirations, their fears. I sometimes know them better than they know themselves.

I watch characters lie. I watch them dodge from expressing their true selves. I watch them invent cover stories to hide and protect their most vulnerable parts. I watch them injure people and in turn I watch them get injured.

In the meantime, I have my own well of experience to draw from. I have real-life exit scenes, some horrible, some amicable. I have my own relationship with death and dying and sex, which are frequently not held as sacred by the mainstream.

Through it all what fascinates me the most is all the stuff that people do not communicate. It’s what we don’t say. And, yes, I am guilty of it, too.

JUST LIKE GOVERNMENT

We learn from so many of our government and social institutions that people inform us of decisions, developments, and policies without telling us the real truth. They focus instead on their politically correct, organization-sanctioned stories.

When government or corporations announce anything, they have been overwritten by PR professionals and often lawyer-vetted.

The logic often gets all convoluted. They announce a price increase and claim it is a benefit for us “so we may serve you better.” They don’t say, “We’re just greedy bastards.”

And just think of how various companies handle disasters like plane and train crashes and industrial explosions and recalls and financial collapses.

And we learn through countless repetitions of this process that fudging is how the game is played. We learn to lie. We also learn that being secretive is somehow better for us than frolicking in an orgy of truth-telling.

Government often explains and excuses manipulation of data and the truth as being in the public interest. They are protecting us, they say. Aren’t they great?

EARTH SCHOOL

If we all believed we were in Earth School — that there was a purpose to life on Earth and that it was to continually learn lessons about love — we might realize that speaking our unvarnished, unapologetic truth leads to personal growth and social improvements. I wonder what people would say to each other under those circumstances.

How could we make breaking up, dying, and sharing sexually more intimate and meaningful? How could we make them more profound learning experiences through open and honest communication? How could we heal each other even when facing difficult challenges and decisions?

Maybe, someday, we can figure this out. I am working on my own solution for me.

Sunset of life

sunset of lifeIn nature and popular fiction metaphors, the end of the day is marked by sunsets and twilight. It’s often portrayed as beautiful, a great time to reflect on life’s wonders, miracles, and pleasures.

Photographers love to take sunset and twilight photos for the quality of the light and the vivid colors. Artists love to paint end of day scenes, too. People like to gather in their favorite spots in nature to watch the big light show.

But what about the sunset and twilight that are end of life for people? Are they held with sweet regard for a life lived or does the scene become a rush to revive the body at all costs – literally and figuratively?

REALITY OF THE END

My 95 year-old father is hovering near death, so I am thinking about these issues again. How does society portray end of life? Under more ideal circumstances, what could it or would it be like?

In much of the world view, of the view we usually call Reality, death is still considered the end of things. Fade to black. Even when millions of people believe in a religious model of an afterlife, the idea of dying still brings on sadness, sometimes hopelessness, sometimes a sense of tragedy. You’ll often hear the term “tragic death” in the news. We grieve, we weep, we miss.

My mother died in late 2011, twelve days short of her 93rd birthday. There was sadness around that event, but also for me celebration that she no longer had to endure life house-bound in a pain-filled body. I had my grief that I could no longer interact with her physical presence, but was pleased to see her in my mind dancing in the streets of heaven.

As someone who has heard and read many accounts of near-death and other mystical experiences, the idea of dying is not so disturbing to me. I will be quite surprised if I die and don’t wake up somewhere else. Of course if I don’t wake up anywhere I won’t care one way or the other. I’ll be dead.

BUT THEN THERE’S THIS

I’ve had personal conversations with people who experienced NDEs and I’ve heard other accounts at support groups. For most of them, dying was a piece of cake. Returning to the body was truly the hard part.

One person who “died” in a car crash told me that she was out of her body and hovering over the roof of the car before her head hit the windshield. Another woman said that as soon as she realized that a bus was going to slam into her car, she instantly popped out of her body.

Several people who “died” during medical emergencies found themselves hovering over their bodies or appearing in an entirely different environment without at first realizing what was going on. It took them awhile to figure out that they had ejected themselves out of their bodies.

As I talked with these people, I began to conclude that most of the deaths I had ever seen in the movies or on TV were probably inaccurate. They were clearly one-sided depictions because we rarely followed “death” from the point of view of the person dying or killed. We just assumed that dead means most sincerely dead.

SOCIAL RELEVANCE

My interest in near-death experiences is not just about what happens to us beyond material living. It’s also socially relevant, at least to me.

If death is really a transformation instead of a termination, then much of what we encounter at life’s end may be wildly misleading. You may disagree, but I believe that dying won’t kill me. I plan to wake up. Consciousness will live on. I am critical of legal, medical, and sometimes even religious systems that don’t prepare people for their next life.

Some people are faced with having to make trying medical choices near end of life. Imagine being elderly and diagnosed with cancer. The medical community would want you to undergo radiation and/or chemotherapy in an attempt to cure the cancer. These therapies are not fun. They can lead to serious side effects. They are exhausting. Would you put yourself through that ordeal to buy a few extra months of physical life, especially if you believed that death was just a doorway to a new life? Or would you elect to coast as comfortably as you could through hospice care?

Most social institutions would say go for the cancer treatment. After all, they reason, if there’s a chance for recovery, you should go for it. It usually does not enter into the dialogue that the person can choose to let nature take its course. Choosing to die is usually viewed as giving up or even failing.

What’s also not usually brought up in the conversation is how expensive these treatments are. If you don’t have the right kind of insurance, medical treatments can break the bank. If the treatments are not guaranteed to restore health, and if the person is realistically close to death, is medical intervention the right course to take? If you spent a lifetime protecting an estate to leave behind, would you want it all to go up to feed the financial hunger of the medical system, especially if you personally were convinced that death only killed your body, not your mind.

WHAT IF THERE’S MORE?

Human life at any age is precious, yet if we had more of a grasp on what may exist beyond the boundaries of a physical life, we might think differently about the end of life. I already do.

If it were absolutely, positively proven that death is transformation, not termination, would medical science insist on trying to “cure” people of life-threatening diseases when they were old and frail? Would social pressure be so intense on “trying to do everything we can to save” someone if strong evidence suggested that consciousness survives death?

Of course, medical science is not very interested in pursuing the question of soul survival. This is not financially profitable research to undertake. It’s all about the physical body and business as usual. They maintain that breathing is better than not breathing under nearly any circumstance.

Clearly if a person wants to fight a disease and prolong life, that should be an available option. But if a person chooses not to pursue medical intervention on the grounds that living a few months more is not worth the pain, suffering, and cost, that should be honored, too.

END OF LIFE PARADIGM

If death is actually like graduating from Earth School and moving to a new campus, then our whole paradigm around death needs revision. Miss people as we might, we would feel less angst and more hope if we thought about them as moving on to a new life, not vanishing altogether.

When the sun sets, we all have strong confidence that a new day will dawn in a bit. That’s the way I would like to see the sunset of a human life: colorfully filled with hope.