I often present a workshop series on what I call soulful aging. Soulful aging is about learning how to accept – even whole-heartedly embrace with gratitude – the natural and on-going changes that happen within our bodies and minds after age 60.
I always end the workshop series by leading class participants through a guided death transition meditation. The meditation is inspired by a reading from an ancient text called the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Of course, no one knows for certain what is going on in the mind of someone who is actively dying. That is not the point of the exercise. The meditation is offered to provide participants with an opportunity to practice coming to terms with the inevitability of death - their own and of those they love.
Several years ago, Kayla attended my soulful aging series at her church. She tearfully described her experience of the guided meditation this way: “At first I felt agitated. My mother recently died and I was sure that dying must have been awful for her – her body shutting down. I couldn’t get that idea and image out of my head. But as the meditation went on I felt more and more peaceful. Now I think I could be totally wrong. What was going on inside of her might have been peaceful. I can see now that I was putting my own fears of death and my not wanting to lose her on her dying process.”
For many of us, going into the mystery of death to relieve ourselves of the fear of death seems somehow wrong – counter intuitive. But the reality is - as Kayla’s experience shows – the way to heal our fears about death and what loss brings to our lives is to go through, rather than around, our fears so that our fears can be healed.
What is death denial?
Death denial is simply the denial of the reality of death.
Denial is also an early stage of grief when a loss still feels unreal or shocking; many - but not all - people experience denial after the loss of a loved one. In the denial stage you may struggle consciously or unconsciously to acknowledge your loss.* Denial is also a psychological defense mechanism, a way your brain protects itself from pain immediately after a loss as it tries to process the reality of what has happened.
The Three Faces of Death Denial
There are three ways in which death denial is expressed:
1. Denial of our own death/mortality. According to research done at the University of Israel, the brain does not accept that death is related to us; however that non-acceptance eventually makes way for acceptance due to the reality of death that we see all around us. This was certainly true of my father-in-law’s experience; he was a man who believed death was going to happen to everyone but him.
Jerry was almost 90 years-old when he died. A week before his death, he was shocked when his doctor told him his kidneys and other vital organs were shutting down and he did not have long to live.
“You can’t fix me? I thought you could keep fixing me,” Jerry said to the doctor.
His doctor replied, “I’m sorry, Jerry, but no, no more fixing. You had your first heart attack at 32. You’re now 89. You’ve had a good run.”
Jerry then asked him, “What would you do now if you were me?”
“I would embrace what is Jerry – have a good death. Let us help you do that.”
A week after this conversation Jerry died peacefully in hospice.
Having witnessed Jerry’ death and others who are actively dying (meaning anyone in the last hours, days or months of life), I have come to see that when it is a person’s time to die the process is completely natural. Before then we may fear our own death but when it is really our time there is only peace.
2. Denial that a loved one is dying. We most often deny that a loved one is dying because we are not yet ready – or have not prepared - to let them go.
I visited my friend Charlotte a day before she died. I sensed and saw that she was displaying all the signs of someone who had hours – perhaps a day - to live: she was in a coma; her breathing was labored and seemed to rattle in her chest and throat; she was feverish. So I was surprised and dismayed when her husband Steve told me “the doctor said this morning that Charlotte will be around for another six months at least.”
“Are you sure you heard him correctly Steve?” I asked. It seemed unlikely a hospice doctor had said such a thing. “Just in case the doctor is wrong you might want to say goodbye to Char now - tell her whatever you need to tell her so that nothing is left unsaid. She can still hear you.”
Steve walked out of the room as if I hadn’t spoken. Charlotte died less than a day later, leaving Steve shocked and devastated. And also regretful that he had not said all the things he had been saving “for the end” because he was afraid if he voiced those things too soon Charlotte would give up hope – or think he had. In reality not talking about death left much unsaid that could have brought comfort to both Charlotte and Steve.
Being present to what is happening allows for the finishing of unfinished business (letting go of regrets, engaging in forgiveness, saying things you thought were too sappy or emotional to say until now) making for a more uncluttered grieving process after your loved one is gone.
3. Denial that a loved one has died. The people we love are our places of belonging. Their presence is solid and certain – so very real – and we can’t imagine a world without them in it. After a loved one has died, denial can be a normal stage of grieving as we adjust to the reality of what has happened.
My client Larry once described how he would leave the house for the day after his wife’s death and then forget – temporarily – that she would not be there to greet him upon his return.
“I would walk in the house thinking, ‘I can’t wait to tell Mary this’ - tell her what happened. And then there was only silence. And then I would feel – ‘oh yes, now I remember’. But yet before walking in the door I was so sure she would be there again somehow.”
At first Larry tried to tell himself, “I must stop doing this. It isn’t healthy.” But in our work together he learned that talking to Mary was something he could still do consciously as a way of continuing a bond with her while at the same time acknowledging that she had died.
“I read this article,” Larry said, “that said most people talk to their loved ones who have passed – at least for awhile. That it can actually be healthy. And they do it because the person is still in their hearts. So I do it. And I guess I’ll do it, until I don’t do it anymore. I know Mary has passed – I know that. But I still like to tell her what I’m doing.”
Normalizing Death as a Part of Life
Getting comfortable with death is part of the process of both dying and living well. Fully embracing the reality that we have a finite time that we will be here on earth can release us from fears and anxieties that usually accompany thoughts of the unknown, freeing us to live more fully. There are ways that we can normalize death as a part of life so when our time or the time of our loved ones come we will find ourselves in a state of acceptance – and even gratitude – for what has been and what is now:
1. Speak openly about death. When a subject is made taboo, it makes it harder to find acceptance, make needed changes and heal. Honest and open conversations around death, the dying process and terminal illness can lead to greater death acceptance.
2. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. One definition of resilience is: the capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, challenge and adversity. Confronting mortality – yours or a loved one’s – can be made less stressful when you prepare ahead of time. Preparing might include: writing a will; planning funeral details; finishing unfinished business such as working through regrets, finding forgiveness, saying what you always wanted to say but never did; and acknowledging and processing griefs large and small as they arise.
3. Show up. When a loved one is dying a natural tendency can be to self-protect against the pain of loss you know is coming. Death acceptance can begin with life acceptance – being present to the person you love exactly as they are right now. Wide awake or not. Full head of hair - hair lost to chemotherapy. Remembers your name or no longer does. Your loved one is still your loved one. Accepting your loved one in every moment can help you find acceptance after your loved one is gone. The same holds true of your own loss of functioning due to the aging process or illness – being present, acknowledging that yes, this is hard and grieving as you go can help you find greater acceptance of death as a part of life.
4. You don’t have to do it alone. Learning to normalize death as a part of life is just that: something we can learn. Consider connecting with groups, a grief support specialist or like-minded people who can support you in learning greater death acceptance.
*American Psychological Association