As hard as it is, thinking about death and dying now and then is actually quite a good thing, journalist Caroline Buijs discovers. because realizing that life ends at a certain point can make it easier to be aware of how you want to live your life.
Why is thinking about death so difficult? Because after reading a pile of books from the library on the subject, it’s very clear that I’m not the only one. Everyone prefers to ignore death; it’s a recurring theme. According to Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, one of the main reasons we struggle with death is that we don’t want to accept that we are mortal: ‘We so desperately want everything to continue as it is that we have to believe that things will always stay the same’. In our eyes, change always means loss and suffering, the Tibetan teacher writes.
‘And when loss presents itself, we do everything we can to avoid feeling it. ‘Reflect on this: The realization of impermanence is paradoxically the only thing we can hold onto, perhaps our only lasting possession.’ I can identify with this; I’m definitely a ‘holder-on’. I get a stomachache when things change. I don’t want my children to ever grow up and grow apart from me, for example, and I also don’t want my parents ever to die.
Perhaps that also explains my sometimes slightly over-the-top habit of making a photo album out of every special occasion. Hold on to those beautiful memories! But that sentence about transience offering you something to hold on to is comforting. It gives me a sense of peace. In her book Death: The Final Stage of Growth Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes that death—despite all technological advances—confronts us with our human vulnerability. We may be able to postpone death, but we can’t escape it, and it strikes without distinction.
Good people die just as often as bad people. It’s probably this aspect of inevitability and unpredictability that makes death so frightening for so many people. What’s more, she writes, in Western society it’s difficult to accept death, because we’re simply not familiar with it. In spite of the fact that it occurs everywhere, all the time, we’re never confronted with it. Maybe she’s right. I remember how, during a trip to India, I noticed that death seemed to be much more common in daily life there; I saw people swimming in the river Ganges and doing their laundry, while a little bit further down the river the dead were being burned. Nobody but me thought this was strange.
- Read the full article ‘Any final thoughts?’ in Issue 28.
Text Caroline Buijs Photography Getty Images