Death, a Journey Towards Life
When I was a child and all through my youth I was often heard proclaiming to my parents that I had no fear of death. For some reason whenever the topic of death was brought up I felt an inner strength and fearlessness arise in me. Sometimes my mother would ask me if I would miss my family if I died, to which I would intensely reply no, I would gladly welcome death without looking back if it came to me. This feeling did not arise out of an aversion of life, but a deep impression of death as my friend, the door to a new life, a continuation. Sometimes I would even imagine what it would be like to be diagnosed with an incurable disease and imagine my dramatic exit from this life and into the next. I did not know what lay in store for me after death, but I felt that it was something good. Even to this day when I hear people describing death as a tragedy, immediately I hear a little voice within me saying ’what’s so bad about death?’
When my grandparents passed away, and my parents would go to visit their graves to say some prayers and spend some time thinking of them, I never wanted to go with them. I would wait in the car outside the cemetery gates feeling slightly uncomfortable, asserting to myself that those who passed did not reside there, and that if I wanted to connect to them, I could do so from within my own heart.
As I got older and became more interested in philosophy and spirituality, I came across the idea in various teachings that the biggest fear is that of death, and that it is the basis of all fears. This idea is seen in many of the ancient religions and philosophies of the past, as well as in modern day psychology. Considering my seeming lack of fear of death, this idea puzzled me. I recognized that I have a lot of underlying fear in my life and I wanted to know where this fear came from. Could it be that this universal statement that all fear stems from the fear of death applies to me also? Through introspection, I realized that although I didn’t have a fear of what I considered death to be, I did have a lot of fear of suffering in this life. In a way, death provided an escape from this suffering to something better, something higher. I didn’t see death as an end, but a continuation. I realized that my idea of death was only of death of the body.
So what is this death that the scriptures claim is at the base of my fears? It is the death of the self and I saw that of that I am very afraid. When I suffer, instead of the expansive feeling I feel when I feel good, there is a contraction in my heart. This contraction feels like I am going to die, a quelling of the life-force within me, and the feeling of the immanent death of that self. And this is what makes me feel fear. So I do actually fear death, ultimate death and the signal of this death for me is the inevitable suffering that comes to me in this life. How does that affect how I live? It makes me try to avoid suffering at all costs and desire what will bring me pleasure, an impossible mission that leads to more suffering. But on the other hand, becoming aware of my fear has inspired me to learn to embrace everything in my life, and experience the truth of who I am uncolored by my fears and desires.
I am very grateful to have been present to witness the deaths of both of my grandparents. I learned a lot from each of their ways of dying. My grandmother was always afraid to die. She frequently cried on saying goodbye to me, saying I might not be alive to see you next year. And she held onto life with both hands, in fear right up until her death. Even the night before she died she would not acknowledge her immanent death to herself, or to her family who were there with her. Her last breath was a grasp for life, one that she couldn’t hold onto.
My grandfather’s death was very different. In contrast to my grandmother, before his death, over the years he would often say to me with affection, ‘I am going to look after you when I die’. He died in his own home. In the time leading up to his death he told each one of his family how much he loved them and wanted to sit up to greet and thank everyone who came to visit him. At times, he would lie in his bed and have inaudible conversations with what only he could see, gazing towards the ceiling in front of him, smiling all the time. It was as if he was talking to those loved ones who came to guide him through this process he was going through. When I went to him, he lovingly asked about how my studies were going and told me he loved me and that he would look after me from heaven when he died. There was so much love and presence in that room. His death was so beautiful. He died how he lived, with love and peace. Even now, when I think of his death, I feel a lot of love. He showed me how to die gracefully, and I feel like I would be fortunate to be able to die like him, with so much dignity and beauty.
Death is a deep and beautiful gift that I pray to have the grace to understand. I also pray to be able to live in a way in which I wish to die, in gratitude, acceptance and love.
Written for the On Living and Dying series. If you’d like to be a part of the challenge, find more info here: 365 Days On Living and Dying. But first, leave a comment and let Gunamayi know how you feel about what she said.
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