Since I was a kid, I’ve been really curious about death. I never saw a dead person when I was a kid — no relative died near me. But I saw horror movies. When Frankenstein threw someone off a windmill, or Dracula was killed with a stake in his heart — I saw sensationalized death.
As I got older, I ended up seeing a few people in their open caskets, and they looked like waxworks. They looked like they’d never been alive. So I started thinking about what being alive means.
It seems there’s something there when a person is alive that you don’t notice — because it’s always there. But when they’re dead it’s gone, and it’s obvious that it’s gone. It seems like an electric current — a vast one, that extends through the whole universe. It makes stars grow and explode, makes planets move around, makes me pick my nose and write this blog post and it pumps my heart. And when I’m dead, that current will stop flowing through my body. Like electricity no longer going through a toaster.
I’m writing this because I went to this thing called a Death Cafe. It turns out there are people all over the world who get together and talk about death in these groups. Not from any dogmatic perspective, but just to discuss whatever comes up when they start discussing death. It’s a way to shed light on something that’s usually hidden — the whole death process. To take away that fear element, that’s so much a part of people’s anticipation of death.
One of the interesting things that came up in our Death Cafe, which was mentioned by more than one person, is the idea of a “good death” versus a “bad death.” A number of people were afraid of having a bad death.
Someone described an example of a good death as their mother having a blood clot in her leg that went to her heart. She got dizzy and she died. That was a good death because she didn’t have to suffer.
A bad death was talked about as being sick for years, being in a lot of pain, and no one around to assist or comfort you toward the end. In a bad death, you lose your capabilities and suffer.
I talked about when I was really sick for 2.5 years before my lung transplant and it looked like I was dying. I also felt like I was dying. I’d lost 50 pounds and couldn’t walk or move much. I couldn’t breathe well at all.
I shared that in retrospect, that was a really hard time for me, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything because of how much it opened my heart. Being incapacitated, not being able to take care of myself and being so fragile made me incredibly vulnerable. A kind of vulnerability I couldn’t hide and I couldn’t get away from — a vulnerability that would normally seem like weakness. Yet when I realized that I couldn’t do anything about it, it became a matter of fact. There was a natural acceptance that came in as a result of it.
Because of that acceptance, this normal part of life that would be shunned and avoided was illuminated. I got to experience it in its fullness. And there was something immensely satisfying and transformative about that.
Again, I had to be reduced to a place of pure helplessness to discover a profound aliveness that I’ve never seen the likes of before.
So what is a good death? From the outside, you may say you don’t want a particular experience. But being in the midst of it actually happening and recognizing a total lack of control, the unity experience that kicks in is more satisfying than anything I could purchase or be given, any kind of social acceptance, fame or money. Those are temporary. But this experience had an effect that’s still with me more than five years later.
If I had died at the end rather than been healed by medicine, I would have had a good death. Even at the time, I knew that.