Death is a difficult topic, and is particularly raw for me. But I know I’m not alone. We all experience loss- those we know, those we love, and we are regularly reminded of our impending mortality as we read the obituaries, see people’s tributes, drive past cemeteries and bear witness to highway memorials.
Let’s get real with the reality of death.
Last week my grandfather passed suddenly and unexpectedly. One moment he was lucid, and interacting, the next minute he was gone.
Hailing from a midwestern Missouri Synod family, the expectation was that we would all gather together and go through the ritual that is the Lutheran grieving process. I had 4 days to decide how to respond with respect to expectations from my family, and my own need to grieve.
So what do we do about death?
Try to prevent it?
We’re writing our stories, knowing that one of the chapters will ultimately result in the end of a story. And for many, that is a terrifying prospect.
How do we create meaning, how do we live our days with the passing of time, and the turning of the pages? And what really happens when we die?
I want to talk with you about 4 things:
It is important to remember that when someone transitions out of this life, that everyone who knew them and loved them will grieve. It is a process called bereavement.
Not everyone grieves the same way. Some people feel angry, some feel a gaping hole in their heart, others feel terrified, some feel happiness and celebrate the person’s celestial reassignment, while maybe you feel intense despair.
Whatever you feel, that is right. It is how you need to feel.
And how you feel should inform how you grieve.
My family is grieving my grandfather. And the way that they celebrated his life and to provide comfort was to go through the process that has been done by Missouri Synod Lutherans for hundreds of years. And that is what they needed.
But not everyone needs the same thing. And this is where we come to point #2.
Remember, you lost a loved one, too. This is not only about your family, or your community, your feelings are JUST AS IMPORTANT.
So how do you deal with people putting their expectations on you? You have to know where you stand. What you need. You have to be willing to stand firm to the truth that you are only responsible for how YOU feel. And that other people are responsible for how they feel.
I get this. It’s not that easy. I made the decision to not go to my grandfather’s funeral. For many reasons, but the most important reason was that it was my choice. My family may be extremely angry with me, hurt by me, and maybe they will choose to not speak to me. But I am responsible for me first and foremost.
Sometimes taking care of ourselves will make us wildly unpopular. People may call you selfish, I’ve been called that. People may tell you that you don’t care about your family. But caring for yourself is an act of love to those around you. People will have lots of things to say. But your job is to know your needs, and to honor them, identify your personal limit and stick to it.
This means you need to rally your supports. Seek out caring people, friends who you trust, a counselor or doctor who’s got your back, support groups with people who GET IT. Be as honest and raw as you need. Don’t keep it buried all alone deep inside. Reach out to SAFE people.
Okay. We’ve been circling the dragon, and that is that death is inevitable and most of us to some degree are TERRIFIED.
Some of us are terrified of dying when we are young. Others are terrified about how we die. You may be more worried about whether you’re ready, prepared, or what it will be like.
What do we do with this? How do I not be afraid?
Research out of the University of Michigan has shown that when a person or an animal is dying, that areas of their brain light up and the brain releases neurochemicals that creates beautiful images of lights and colors. The brain in this state is in a dream like state like stepping through a curtain from mist into sharpness and exhilaration.
Another study was conducted with individuals who had gone into this pre-death state and returned and were able to describe their experience. 72% of patients studied said they had dreams or visions of reuniting with people who had already died, 59% of people said they had dreams or visions of preparing to go somewhere, and 28% reflected on meaningful experiences from the past. Almost all of the participants studied were significantly less afraid of death. If those who have been intimately close with death, much closer than you or I, are significantly less afraid having experienced it, than this tells me that it just might be okay.
Know that there is something bigger than you.
Whether you’re religious, spiritual, a quantum physicist or a skeptic, we can all agree that there are things in this world that we do not understand.
But what is particularly interesting is that throughout history, thinkers worldwide have all come to a very similar conclusion: There is something bigger than we are.
Where we tend to disagree is on what that something is, and what the implications are. Whether you believe in God, The Divine, a Higher Power, if you’re a nihilist, a monotheist, polytheist, or a mathematician there is evidence that there is more to life than materialism.
But it’s your job to decide what that meaning is. And doing the work is a key part of helping you to turn the page on your fear.
The first step of the ACT Method is acknowledge. This is where we look our fears straight in the face and say I SEE YOU AND I’M READY TO LISTEN TO YOUR MESSAGE.
To get a glimpse into the ACT Method for Anxiety Relief, check out the complimentary 3-Minute Hack Webinar for combating stress and overwhelm!
Borjigin, Jimo & Lee, Uncheol & Liu, Tiecheng & Pal, Dinesh & Huff, Sean & Klarr, Daniel & Sloboda, Jennifer & Hernandez, Jason & Wang, Michael & Mashour, George. (2013). Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 110. 10.1073/pnas.1308285110.
Grant P et al (2014) The significance of end-of-life dreams and visions. Nursing Times; 110, 28: 22-24.