Lean in.

Lean in. Don’t avoid – move toward.

The first step towards healing any fears we might have about death and dying is always the same: Lean in. Lean into discomfort. Lean into fear. Lean into uncertainty. Lean into what is as it is.

Learning to lean into subjects, emotions and experiences we find difficult can help us more skillfully navigate stress and challenge and better prepare for the inevitability of loss and change that is a natural part of life: subjects such as our own mortality; emotions such as grief; life-changing experiences such as the loss of a loved one. Learning to move toward our fears and anxieties about death and dying can help us to more deeply appreciate life by acknowledging how temporary, short and precious earthly life is. This is what it means to be ‘death positive.’

Being Death Positive

We’re all going to die. The Death Positive or Death Positivity Movement asks that we lean into the reality of our own mortality and the mortality of our loved ones so that we can more fully live life. We can do this by openly discussing and expressing our thoughts, feelings and intentions about death and dying with friends and family and in open forums such as Death Cafes and in spiritual and religious community settings. Openly discussing our mortality can help us frame death as the final phase of life, rather than as something separate from life that is too scary or morbid to acknowledge.

This concept of embracing death as a part of life defines the Death Positive Movement and also defines what it means to be ‘death positive’.

Eight Tenets of the Death Positive Movement

The conceptual roots of death positivity can be traced back to the 1970s and the beginning of the hospice movement which empowered end-of-life choice, including the right to refuse life-sustaining medical interventions in favor of a more natural approach to death. The Order of Good Death was eventually founded in 2011 by Caitlin Doughty. The organization offers these 8 Tenets of the Death Positive Movement to serve as guidelines for embracing death positivity, alleviating stress around issues of death and dying, and better preparing for death:

  1. I believe that by hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.
  2. I believe that the culture of silence around death should be broken through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship.
  3. I believe that talking about and engaging with my inevitable death is not morbid, but displays a natural curiosity about the human condition.
  4. I believe that the dead body is not dangerous, and that everyone should be empowered (should they wish to be) to be involved in care for their own dead.
  5. I believe that the laws that govern death, dying and end-of-life care should ensure that a person’s wishes are honored, regardless of sexual, gender, racial or religious identity.
  6. I believe that my death should be handled in a way that does not do great harm to the environment.
  7. I believe that my family and friends should know my end-of-life- wishes, and that I should have the necessary paperwork to back-up those wishes.
  8. I believe that my open, honest advocacy around death can make a difference and can change culture.

Although the Death Positive Movement is unknown to most of our society, over the past 40 - 50 years the movement has helped shape how we often approach issues of end-of-life and death including enacting the concept of celebrating someone’s life even as we mourn their loss, individualized funerals that represent the spirit and personality of the deceased, and environmentally-friendly burial options.

Roy and Judy: A Love Story, A Death Positive Story

To feel is to be human. Being death positive does not deny the pain of loss. And it does not put a stop to the natural flow of grief that follows in the wake of a loved one’s fatal diagnosis and/or death (or our own impending death). Rather a death positive heart and mindset helps us be more fully present to a loved one’s life and our life with that loved one until a last breath is taken - and beyond. As I was writing this blog the many friends and family members I have had the privilege of journeying with in life and at end of life floated often through my mind with gratitude. And someone else came often to mind as well: Roy Smoot.

I recently I had the pleasure of meeting Roy via zoom to talk about his touching, often heart-breaking and ultimately hopeful book It All Belongs: Love, Loss & Learning to Live Again co-authored with his wife of nearly 40 years, Judy. The book is beautifully illustrated with Judy’s expressive art work, Roy’s poetry and recounts the couple’s shared and individual experiences in physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually navigating and coming to terms with Judy’s fatal brain tumor diagnosis, final years and end of life, as well as Roy’s grief journey.
When I asked Roy to share his thoughts on being death positive Roy said that my request returned him to “conversations we (Roy and Judy) had long before her cancer was found and during her many surgeries, treatments and therapies. We were unknowingly practicing Death Positivity.”

Practicing – albeit unknowingly – death positivity deeply influenced Judy and Roy’s life decisions before and after Judy’s diagnosis. For example Judy was both a hospice volunteer and spiritual director, vocations undertaken to help ease the suffering of others – vocations that embrace the reality of death as part of life. Roy said that, “Judy’s favorite thing to do was to hold hands and speak gently to people who were actively dying, moments from their death. She considered it a sacred honor. Little did we know she would one day be a hospice patient, tenderly cared for by a new group of hospice Angels.”

As another example of death positivity, as Judy’s death came closer Roy and Judy spent an afternoon co-writing Judy’s obituary. “It was an incredible and humbling honor to co-write it so it truly celebrated her life with her words and memories included.” Writing your own obituary is an exercise I often do with clients as part of putting in writing their legacy of values.

At one point in It All Belongs, Judy and Roy ask the question “How does one make friends with death?” As the book slowly reveals, the answer to that question is in the question itself: one makes friends with death. And in doing so more deeply embraces life.


Remembering A Life Journey Cards and Have the Talk of a Lifetime Cards
It All Belongs: Love, Loss & Learning to Live Again by Judy and Roy Smooth with Melinda Folse (https://sparkpointpress.com/iab-flyer/ )
Free E-book: The Death Positive Movement, Phaneuf Funeral Homes & Crematorium (https://phaneuf.net/death-positive-e-book )
Remembering a Life Dinner Parties