Two Essential Questions About Life and Death
“Because we never know whether our next breath may be our last, being prepared for the immediate unknown becomes as practical as applying for a passport while still uncertain of our destination or time of departure.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last
Each of us comes into this world with an expiration date, like a carton of milk. Some would say that from a spiritual perspective, we have only signed up for a certain number of breaths and when we take our final exhalation we, like Elvis, “have left the building” and vacated the body that housed our essence.
Death is not an unfamiliar specter to me, having lost my beloved grandmother at age four, various friends and family members throughout my life, my husband when I was 40 and my parents in my 50’s. I came face to face with the doorway to the next incarnation on June 12, 2014 when a fully occluded artery caused a disturbance in my life force. A heart attack at age 55 was not something I had ever contemplated, but there I was, needing to re-evaluate every aspect of my existence. I say that the woman I was died that day to give birth to the one who is now writing these words.
Despite these experiences, I am not afraid of death. I recall a dream I had in my 20’s in which I was taking hovering steps above the sidewalk of my childhood street. My sister was there with me and she asked, “What are you doing here? You’re dead.” It was then that I realized I felt at ease with that state of being, without wanting to hasten it.
As a therapist, I have worked with clients who either fear the end of their lives or, indeed, do want to hasten it, since what they are feeling is a sense of hopelessness that their pain — physical or emotional — will not cease otherwise.
A few years ago, in conversation with a friend who is now facing breast cancer, I asked her the $64,000 question: If you could know the exact moment and method of your death, would you want to be told? There are times when my answer is yes and others when if it was to be said out loud, I would plug my ears with my fingers and say “la, la, la, la… I can’t hear you.” In the first case, I wonder if it would change the way I live my day to day. Would I be more open and loving? I know I would worry less and take greater stretches and leaps. I would do the things I fear to do. I would tell people how I truly feel and not hold back a syllable and in some cases, would sit in silence with those for whom words are not sufficient to express how I feel about them.
Author and Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine wrote the classic tome, A Year To Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last . In it, he postulates what the ensuing 12 months would bring if he knew for sure that at the end of it, he would cease breathing. The idea was to live more fully and mindfully as a result. Some of the take-away tidbits:
“How soon will we accept this opportunity to be fully alive before we die?”
“I have seen many die, surrounded by loved ones, and their last words were ‘I love you.’ There were some who could no longer speak yet with their eyes and soft smile left behind that same healing message. I have been in rooms where those who were dying made it feel like sacred ground.”
Perhaps this exercise prepared Levine for his eventual death in 2016.
I posed these questions to friends:
If you knew you would die tomorrow, what would you do today?
If you knew you would live another 20 years, what would you do today?
“Tomorrow — get my bestie on the next flight to come to my going away party. 20 years–exactly what I’m doing now…. making sure things are in order financially so we can travel as much as possible and enjoy retirement.”
“If I knew I would die tomorrow, I’d laugh at my creditors.”
“Die tomorrow — call closest friends to hear their voice and check in with them one more time to tell them I love them.”
“One day to live, sit in the living room with my family and hold each other’s hand, lean against them, hug them, laugh, and tell them special things I love or remember about them.”
“Write letters to those I love. 20 years. Finish my book.”
“Exactly what I’m doing right now and that’s why I’m doing it…today tomorrow 20 years from now. I’m living my life today.”
“Answer to both: Call my wife to chat about whatever.”
“One day to live– too far from my kid to be with her, but would be talking and texting with her constantly… I hope my closest friends would be with me as well.”
“Go be with my mom, bro and sis.”
“Same thing I am doing today.”
“I’d work the phones to get funding for a brilliant care partner to attend April’s masterpiece lyceumconference in Phila, “making chronological age irrelevant,” then convince her to go because I can’t. spend the rest of the day snugged with John & the cats.”
“Years ago, when someone I knew was dying I made up this little song… Today is my first day on Earth, I want to sing, I want to run, I want to dance in the sun and smile at everyone. Today is my last day on Earth, I want to sing, I want to run, I want to dance in the sun and smile at everyone. Today is my first day, today is my last day.”
“Tomorrow: Grab my son and my husband and go to North Carolina to spend the day with my sisters.” Twenty years: Work, like I am today anyway.”
“I heard there are two days in our life that will have less than 24 hours. Write and YouTube a “Good luck, it’s your turn” Song! Then have my favorite meal, if I could eat, speak to my long -distance beloveds on the phone and ask my closest local friends to come and tone me into the next world.”
“Exactly what I’m doing now, enjoying every moment, loving like crazy, sucking up every juicy morsel of life with a really big spoon!”
“I would share the day with family and friends and my 4 leggeds. Probably jump in the river and swim from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. or if its frozen walk across it.”
“One day — connect with everyone I love to make sure they know how much I love them, sit by the ocean, have friends and family tone, sing and chant to me as I die. Twenty years — do what I’m doing with work, writing, and time with friends and family.”
I have absolutely no idea. when I went home last year and went to my late much-loved friends’ house, I felt my own mortality. It was quite an experience. Now, I can’t find an answer to this question. I have a bucket list. maybe I’ll look at something there. It’s all a puzzle as I never thought I’d live the is long!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
“Tell all my peeps I love them…20 years do the very best I can each day, be kind, do my art.”
“The answer is the same for both questions. Live as I have for the last 25+ years, juicy.
1st I would try to get to as many people who were in my life and remind them how much their love changed me. 2nd continue to find new ways to grow in the spirit.”
“I would be doing the same thing as I would NOW.”
“Watch all my favourite artists in the music industry and probably die singing although I have lost my voice in the past few days; no sore throat etc… just losing my voice.”
If I knew I was to cross over in the next 24 hours, I would, as in the iconic 1960’s song by Melanie Safka, called Beautiful People, “gather everyone together for a day. And when we’d gathered, I’ll pass buttons out that say, Beautiful People, then you’d never need to be alone, cause there’ll always be someone with the same button on. Include him in everything you do.”
If I was sure I would have another two decades ahead of me (it would make me 79), I would continue to live and love full out, slurping the juice from the bottom of the glass, not missing a drop.