Dying2Learn

I’m taking 2 online classes currently – one about the human lifespan, birth to death- and the other which is aptly titled ‘Dying2Learn.’ You can pretty much guess the subject material even through the cryptic Prince-like lyrical title. 

It’s funny because in the human lifespan class, death gets a mere 20 pages of coverage. The most mysterious subject. The one many of us avert our eyes to. So for a curious-minded sort like myself, I’m off to accent my learning with this MOOC that goes full-throttle on the death pedal. 

“The Great Matter is birth and death. Life slips past and time is gone. Right now, wake up! Wake up! Do not waste time.” 

Death and dying have become huge topics in my life.  I’ve become aware of their presence and what that means to live. It’s all quite ordinary.  Whether we’re able to dedicate more than 20 pages to our textbook about it or not. It’s part of our human lifespan and we need to learn how to prepare for it – both for ourselves and others around us. Acceptance is key. 

As Spring is now here all bright and filled with promise, I’m hunkered down with over 1800+ people worldwide – contemplating our mortality.  

Death Positive

When you say that you’re ‘death positive’ – it may sound kind of weird to the uninitiated.  Like you’re running around dressed like a goth cheerleader, chanting ‘Rah Rah. It’s OK. Everybody Dies Anyway.” Like anything, there are levels to the positivity, just as there are levels to the woo in New Age circles and the guitar noodling in the Heavy Metal realm. 

The concept of ‘death acceptance’ might be bit less strange as it’s commonly spoken of, and well – regardless of whether we want death in our lives, we accept that it happens (eventually we accept it, because we have no choice). As Buddhists, our dear friend the First Noble Truth teaches that the suffering of birth, old age, sickness and uh hem, death is unavoidable. Whether we become comfortable or tolerant of this truth is our own personal journey.  

Given 2015 was the year that I was initiated into the Hardcore Grievers Club, I’ve since become quite death positive. This isn’t without a basis in being interested, frightened or ‘death curious.’ As a child, most of my interest in death revolved around a love of horror films and all things that went bump in the night. One of the deeper death experiences I had was when my close friend, Tina was killed by a drunk driver. I was roughly 10 years old and from what I remember, it was surreal to me. I was left trying to comprehend how someone I spent so much time with and was bonded to, was now no longer. I didn’t have a lot of resources to help me through this and was left to process things pretty independently. We lived on the same street and I remember walking by her house feeling something I couldn’t quite nail down. Fear. Sadness. Confusion. Worry about my own death. Anger. Righteousness. Wanting to find the drunk driver and smash his head in. Worrying about seeing her parents and not knowing what to say. Wanting to see her parents. 

I come from an Irish Catholic family, so death was accompanied by a wake. With this wake was a full on expression of emotions. More emotions than many in my family could handle. There were fistfights on occasion, but always yelling, crying, wailing and the presence of a priest. Our priest was a lovely man. Ruddy-skinned, big ears and a stick think frame. He used to play on an all-priest hockey team called ‘the Flying Fathers’ and this delighted me to no end – imagining a bunch of priests in collars with no pads, checking each other around and zooming across the ice. It would have spoiled my childhood image of this to know that they were well-padded, helmet-headed and looked like no other hockey team shimmying it up. 

Deaths continued around me. Family. Friends. Schoolmates. There isn’t a day where the obituary section isn’t filled with one name. Some of these deaths came with a sense of relief – Ah, they will now be at peace. Some were met with shock. Some didn’t have the old age, or sickness category affixed to their cause. 

I trod through life for 19 years, and then discovered Buddhism. One of the first books I read was ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.’ I didn’t understand a word of it then, and likely now it may be as mystical and kaleidoscopic as it was when I first cracked the spine. I pawed over countless other deathy books – likely hoping to gain an understanding, but also out of sheer interest.

You can’t learn through books along – only by experience. 

Reverting on old ways, when my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer – I tore through books hoping to get some insight. When my dog’s health began to decline, I did the same. Maybe it was a way to buffer myself from the inevitable. To better manage what was coming. To batten down the hatches. To know how the story is likely to end.

The books may have helped a bit.  I can’t say for sure. What did help was going through the experiences. The messiness. The confusion. The wild hurricane of emotions. I wasn’t studying or practicing Buddhism in the way I used to – reading, studying, practicing – but was now living what I had learned to that point. Pema Chodron’s words on uncertainty, letting go, not biting the hook – they all had an application at various stages as things evolved with my mom and my dog. Teachings from Chogyam Trungpa rang in my head. Momentary flashes back to weekends spent at Shambhala centres where I was being primed for this. Like a young gymnast doing reps on the beam – over and over and over. I was coming back to my breath when I was feeling like I was drowning. 

It was unconscious. I wasn’t seeking this comfort or running to my bookshelf for the perfect passage for the moment. It was in there. I didn’t have to call upon it. It just arose. 

I’m now even more curious about death. I’m heartened to see that more and more people are expressing that they are death positive. Maybe you are too and you don’t know it yet. Don’t wait until it’s too late! 

A list of death positive people you should know:

Please add anyone I’ve missed in the comments. I’d love to find more death positive mentors and friends.