Introduction

I have been preoccupied with death for as long as I can remember. All my life I have either been thinking about it in order to make sense of it, or trying not to think about it so I wouldn’t have to make sense of it. What follows is the story of my own personal struggle to become comfortable with the idea of death and dying, but it’s a story that involves every person ever born, because death is the final chapter in everyone’s life story.

Death doesn’t obliterate life; it is a unifying force that illuminates life and portrays it as real. Yet for most of us, it is the elephant in the room we are unable to acknowledge. Whether we’re aware of it or not, death is the driving force behind most of what we do. On the one hand, we keep ourselves busy so we’ll have something to show for our time on earth. On the other hand, we don’t dare allow ourselves to become idle and risk being forced to think about why it is we keep ourselves busy. Everything we do is informed by the fact that our days are numbered. Death is the hidden agenda that we keep so well hidden, we are not even aware of it.

I don’t believe that we are born with a fear of death. I know that my own earliest thoughts about it were not tinged with fear. The fear was acquired throughout my childhood in stages, from experiences I can recall quite vividly. I gradually became indoctrinated into the uneasiness of those around me, and the ultimate telling of lies, which pushed the story of the truth of my existence farther and farther away. For most of us, the end result of this process is that finally, lonely and without resources, we find ourselves struggling against the current of our lives, drowning in the misunderstandings.

I grew up in Chicago, where some of my first encounters with death involved finding dead birds in the street. Their lifeless forms evoked feelings of fascination and compassion, but not fear. Once, I kicked a dead pigeon six blocks to a plot of earth adjacent to our apartment building, so I could provide it with a proper burial. On another occasion, I performed last rites on my pet guppy. I awoke one morning to find it floating on one side, close to death. I put its bowl on the kitchen table, pulled up a chair, covered my head with a towel, and began to sing and recite prayers I had learned in Sunday school, hoping God would hear me and heal the fish.

God didn’t hear my prayers (the fish died), but my mother did. I saw her peeking around the corner of the bedroom with the phone to her ear, chuckling as she described the solemn ritual that was taking place in the kitchen. I was too grief-stricken to be humiliated, but I was also not afraid of what was happening to my guppy.

The terror that eventually became linked to my perception of death began, I believe, with my parents’ ardent attempts not to mention it. Dying is as natural as being born, although it’s seldom talked about in our culture. In fact, the subject is to be avoided by every means possible. In spite of that, and even though I had never experienced the death of a family member or friend at an early age, I saw it everywhere I looked. I couldn’t help thinking about it when the leaves turned brown and fell from the trees; when a spider drowned in the bathtub; when a baby bird fell out of its nest; when I watched the nightly news and saw bodies being pulled from collapsed buildings after earthquakes. These events are part of everyone’s life, and when children observe them, strong feelings are stirred up that they need to talk about. Any feeling that can’t be expressed becomes very powerful, and subconsciously I began to believe that if death could not be discussed, it must be too terrifying for words.

Then there were those times when the subject did come up, that I received the emotional equivalent of an electric shock, as signals were sent—some subtle and some not so subtle—that activated an alarm system within me. Those experiences created the wiring that sent out desperate and grave warnings as the topic of death was approached.

One such incident occurred when I was four years old. I was watching the rescue of a little girl, who was my same age, from a well into which she had fallen. She was alone at the bottom of a deep, dark hole, and I sat in suspense around the TV flanked by my parents and grandmother, waiting to see if she would survive. I felt my own family’s tension as I witnessed the terror on her parents’ faces while the rescue workers snatched her from the jaws of death. This made a huge impression on me. (I believe that part of the reason it was so frightening is because I was too young to have well-formed personal boundaries, and on some level I thought that I was the child in the well.)

In those days, television also periodically brought into our living room the tragedy of coal miners who were trapped when a tunnel collapsed. On more than one occasion when I was very small, the entire country was kept in suspense, waiting to see if missing miners would be pulled from the earth dead or alive. Sometimes the rescue operations we watched were successful and sometimes they were not. All of them paraded images of grief and expressions of pain and horror in front of my eyes, as their families reacted to their loved ones’ terrible fate: death.

Another pivotal incident happened when my Aunt Ida and Uncle Joe came to dinner one night. They got into an argument and went into my parents’ bedroom to continue their fight. Uncle Joe was diabetic and was eating everything he wasn’t supposed to at the dinner table, and in frustration, Aunt Ida yelled at him, “I wish you were dead already!”  Everyone gasped in horror, dropped what they were eating, and ran into the bedroom after them. Although I was a child and could not understand all the implications and nuances of this and the other situations, the message was coming through loud and clear: death was something very, very bad.

In fact, death is almost never portrayed as an accepted or peaceful experience. These snapshots of encounters with death, to which we’re exposed when we’re children, create a frightening imprint that remains frozen in our emotional field. Eventually nothing can convince us that it need not be feared.

The final “nail in the coffin,” an event that imprisoned me in a state of fear and dread, occurred when I was about seven. It caused me to flip into anxiety so severe that for the next four decades, I would feel compelled to avoid the subject or else risk triggering debilitating panic attacks. My parents went to a funeral, and when they came home I asked them to tell me what death was like. Their reply was that death was like going to sleep. This is something parents should never tell their children. That night, I fell asleep and had a nightmare in which I dreamed I was dead and buried in a box under the ground.

Like most children, it never occurred to me (and it didn’t occur to anyone to explain) that my body, when dead, would no longer be able to walk, talk, or breathe. In the dream, I was buried alive and I was suffocating. The terror I felt at being trapped in that coffin, with a lid on top and several feet of packed earth holding it down, still haunts me. When I pushed up I could feel the resistance of the entire world pushing back, and I panicked at the thought that there was no way out.

I bolted upright in bed and looked around, but the bedroom was pitch black. This, in my groggy state of mind, seemed to confirm that I was truly underground. There was not even the usual crack of light under the door from the bathroom night light across the hall to show me where I was. Nevertheless, the wisdom in my body prevailed, and I got up and ran out of the room. Much to my relief, I found myself in familiar surroundings, and the awareness of where I was and what had happened slowly penetrated my consciousness. That incident left me marked with an indelible fear of death, and I could not seriously face it again for many years.

When we are very young, we approach everything with an open mind, even death. Unfortunately, our early contacts with the reactions of those around us close us down and cause us to engage in avoidance and denial instead. Denial was the course I would take for many years to come—until my father was dying, and death wasted no time in teaching me what I needed to know. Then I found myself so completely enmeshed in the immediacy of its demands that I was compelled to live in the moment, to be strong and at the same time to surrender. Surrounded by death and its agenda, I was like a fly in a spider web: the more I tried to disentangle myself, the more tightly I was caught.

I had no choice but to succumb to the inevitable, since my overriding concern for my father’s needs forced me to put aside my own fears. When I did, I discovered that underneath the fear, the rage, the pain and the conflicts, there is a current of energy that connects all the parts to the whole. When I climbed aboard the train and started this journey toward death, I began experiencing a truly remarkable and unexpected phenomenon.  As my father was dying of cancer, amidst what felt like one of the darkest episodes of my life, there were moments when utter clarity descended upon me.  In those moments, it was as if a light was shined on my soul, and the illumination revealed all the wisdom and understanding I needed to make sense of every situation. I call these moments and the insights they conveyed, Shining Moments.

The experience of standing still and looking death in the eye is incredibly powerful and demanding. In trying to describe what is essentially incomprehensible to the mind, there is no way to avoid entering territory that is beyond intellectual comprehension and using words that do more than merely engage the intellect.  For that reason, I have spoken here with a voice I hope will bypass the ordinary tools of cognition and resonate with you through an “inner sense.”  In the pages that follow, you will hear that voice speaking its wisdom in the italicized passages.