A man named Bill once told us that every single morning when he opened his newspaper, the first place he looked was the obituaries. We assumed he was wondering whether someone he knew had passed, but he quickly corrected us. “Oh no! I read the obits every day just to be sure that my name is not there!”
We all know that we are going to die someday, but unlike Bill, few of us consciously think about dying, and often we avoid talking about it or planning for it. Why is that? What are we afraid of?
There is an underlying fear shared by many of the whole subject of death. We may not even recognize our own avoidance until someone close to us is sick and possibly facing his or her own death. When someone we love dies or when we are close to death ourselves, it’s normal to have all the feelings associated with fear of loss. Underlying that fear, and actually all fears, is the fear of separation from something or from someone.
Think about it. When you are feeling fear for any reason, ask yourself the simple question, “Who or what am I afraid of being separated from?” Your answer could help you begin a process of alleviating the paralysis of fear and replacing it with a clearer, honest view of what you are really facing and feeling. It could be loss of financial security, loss of a loved one, loss of a job — all fears of such events are rooted in that fear of separation.
It is our experience that even those with strong religious beliefs, ideas meant to prepare us to face the end of life, an afterlife or even reincarnation, can find it difficult to talk about death. Many who are not religious but consider themselves spiritual also find ways to sidestep the topic. Agnostics are not sure there is anything after death and atheists are quite positive there is nothing — that death is the end of the line. With all the myriad beliefs about the afterlife or lack thereof, the only thing everyone can agree upon is that you have to die to get there.
It’s noteworthy how rarely death is talked about in our homes and in our communities. The subject touches us on emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual and metaphysical levels. Because many of us have fears about dying, we often treat it as taboo for discussions.
And yet: at a recent luncheon for 12 on the Belvedere Lagoon, one guest offered the following question for consideration: “What are your thoughts about death?” Not surprisingly, each well-pondered response differed from the others. Some of the guests may have been surprised by their own answers, but all seemed to feel positively about the fact that the subject was brought up.
Some people evade the subject of their own death by not having a will or trust nor financial and medical directives to follow if they are incapacitated or die. We decided to use LegalZoom.com as an economical and efficient way to handle our affairs. Most of us have heard someone say, “After I die, I don’t care. Let everyone else deal with it.” That may sound hostile or unfeeling toward the survivors, but deep down such remarks generally spring from fear and avoidance, an unresolved relationship with one’s own mortality.
“As a boy, I remember vividly, I saw that my parents feared death and suffered greatly from this their entire lives. While leaving a funeral, my father would always wash his hands with a hose at the cemetery. When I asked why he did that, he shared his belief that washing his hands would prevent him from being the next one to die. I picked up some of my parents’ fears, which lasted until 1975. It was then that I was guided to start the first Center for Attitudinal Healing, in Tiburon, for children facing critical, life-threatening illnesses, realizing that I still carried a lot of fear about my own death. My work with these children, who were facing death head-on, helped me to recognize and to heal my own fear and to prepare me to die in peace. I will always be grateful to them.” — Jerry
“In a head-on approach to the reality of living and dying, my amazing mother, Phyllis Cirincione Girard, initiated what is affectionately known in our family as The List. Whenever any of us visited her in the decades before she passed, she would take note of a comment about any item in her home and invariably say, “Put it on The List. You may not get it in the end, but at least I will know to consider you because you like it.” In our hearts we never wanted her to die, so we joked with and cajoled with her for years about her list. After a decade or so, she gradually wore us down and we participated. I can remember her saying that she did not want her kids to fight over a saltshaker and that she would name the destination of everything she owned before she died. Well, let me tell you, as her executor, what a favor she did for us all. In her own caring way, our beloved mother prepared each of us for her death and gave us much to consider about our own. Her transition at 94 was beautiful and filled with peace and connectedness, surrounded by all who loved her.” — Diane
Our work in Attitudinal Healing, which began in 1975, demonstrates the many benefits we experience when we let go of the judgments we’ve made about ourselves and others, often because of our unhealed relationships. Forgiveness plays an essential role in our ability to experience peace of mind and, clearly, it is peace of mind that we want when we are dying.
Some people have some foresight regarding their destiny with death. Eleven-year-old Paul Johansen was in the hospital very close to death from advanced cancer and he hadn’t eaten in several days. He suddenly woke up and asked for a Big Mac and then shared his dream. He was talking to God and asked if he could stay here a littler longer because he wanted to help other people who were facing death like he was. God said that it could be arranged.
His energy and appetite returned and he truly felt that he had good reason to be alive a little longer. Not long thereafter, 60 Minutes was doing a segment on our first Center for Attitudinal Healing and they decided to feature Paul and another boy, Tony Bottarini. The result was that millions of viewers, both inside and outside the U.S., were inspired by Paul and Tony’s desire to be helpful to others. Paul’s legacy was the message that as long as he was alive, it was his job to be helpful and loving to others.
Indeed, it seems our attitudes can change everything and even possibly impact how long we live. Motivation inspiring the will to live can oftentimes be beyond measure.
One woman we remember well had stage 4 cancer and was told by her doctor in June that she had only two or three months to live. The woman said, “This isn’t possible. My daughter is getting married at Christmastime and I am going to attend her wedding.” As it turned out, shortly thereafter, her physician died of a coronary, but the woman lived to see her daughter married.
There is something quite poignant about entering the last decades of our lives. There is a renewed sense of time, and whereas we cavalierly crossed off the seemingly endless days from our calendars in the past, the current days become more and more precious. It often seems that somewhere along the way we come to a fork in the road of choices on how we are going to live the rest of our lives.
One choice follows our fears of stagnation, of being diminished physically, emotionally, mentally and, consequently, spiritually. As we experience loss and being “less than,” our fears can culminate in not only the fear of death, but the paralyzing fear of the experience of dying. Thus, we often close our hearts like a fortress to secure against further loss and to protect what we do have.
The other choice is cultivating a renewed sense of gratitude for all that life has offered on the journey of learning and therefore growing past our perceived limitations. We have stopped holding on to grievances, suspended judgments on others, and striven to forgive all that holds us negatively to the past. This frees us to live fully in love and appreciation in the present. We have a more contented sense of self, all the while remaining open to how we can be helpful to and acknowledging of others as well as the generations that follow us.
As our number of days inevitably grows shorter, it feels like going with the latter choice — to forgive unconditionally, to be grateful for everything, to love fully, and to be truly present wherever we are — truly serves us well.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s November 2019 issue.
Gerald G. Jampolsky, M.D., and Diane V. Cirincione- Jampolsky, Ph.D., are co-founders of Attitudinal Healing International, which has centers in 31 countries on six continents. They are co-authors of numerous bestsellers, including A Mini Course for Life, Love Is the Answer, and Change Your Mind — Change Your Life.