Death — a whole new adventure

OverTheCliff1 - Death -- a whole new adventureTighe Foley, one of the four people appearing in my documentary film Facing Death . . . with open eyes, spoke about a pivotal moment when he switched from struggling to live with HIV to anticipating his death. “I was crossing the Bay Bridge,” he recalled. “It was just a beautiful day . . .  and I was thinking about death. What a wonderful journey!” he said. “This is a whole new journey in my life and I’m just getting ready.” I was dazzled by his words.

This idea of death as a new journey as an adventure is something I try to convey in my workshops on dying. Everything in life is an adventure, an opportunity for discovery and learning — even death. If we stop resisting, ignoring, and denying, if we embrace all that shows up, life is more livable and we might actually discover some important things along the way. As Robin Inman quotes in the same film, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

This is not to say that the death adventure is an easy idea to take on, particular when there is pain or sudden loss or progressive disability. This framework, this lens through which we can interpret the events of life and death requires daily practice. It requires surrendering to “what is” and a healthy dose of curiosity.

In my early fifties I had an ovarian cyst rupture. It was extremely painful and left me bed-ridden for more than a month. I am not very good at being sick. More than a week seems an extravagance. What made my illness tolerable was certainty that I WOULD get better. A thought struck me — because I was in the midst for filming my documentary on death — What would it be like to know that you would not get better? That, in fact, you would get worse? It took my breath away. I could not wrap my mind around it. It was too scary. This is where, I think, the “new adventure” idea can be very helpful. Each new physical change may be seen not as part of an irreversible slide to death but rather as an another opportunity for discovery — about life, about self. Now if you also happen to believe that death is the door to a new life, as we have been told by all those many people who have had near death experiences (NDE), this adventure gets much more exciting. Okay, this is what it feels like to not eat, to stop breathing, to let go of my body, to die.

The first time I showed my films at UCSF, I was reticent to share this perspective of death as adventure. Two young women in their 30’s who had metastatic cancer and did not believe in an afterlife stood up share their anger at being cheated out of so much of this one and only life. My heart ached for them. What could I say? I would be angry too if that was my belief. Since that time, I have learned that it is possible to embrace the adventure even if you don’t believe in a afterlife.

A lovely man I knew by the name of Bob had a weak heart that could fail at any time. He did not believe in an afterlife either. Instead of bemoaning his lot, he treated every new day as an amazing gift. To be fair, he was closer to 70 than 30 and he had been living with this heart condition for decades. But the ante had been upped since the death of his wife and new heart complications had arisen. I found his surrender to “what is” very inspiring. Each day brought new discoveries, new wonderment. He learned in this final year that spirituality was not about religion, it was about having awe. He also discovered that people liked him not because he was the husband of an accomplished woman (now deceased), but for himself. Sleeping very little, he sometimes found it difficult to differentiate between dreaming and waking state. What a curiosity not to be sure which was which! And how do we know what is real anyway? As his energy slowed his movement to a shuffle punctuated with many rests, he remarked to me one evening after a long silence, at the beauty of a turquoise robe draped over the oatmeal couch where I sat and at the vibrant red flowers in the cloisonne vase on the table beside it brushed in the golden light of the setting sun. “Yes,” I said, “that’s it. With each closing door, a new one opens.”

I am less reserved now about sharing this perspective of death as adventure. It provides hope and a future for people facing death (which is all of us) even if that future is only the precious time we have left on earth. It is certainly more appealing than the alternatives: denial, fear, or grim stoicism — and very likely more healthy for the body.

Shortly before Bob died, a close friend asked him what he wanted. He responded with an impish smile, “More adventures!” I like to believe he got his wish.


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