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Dancing around Death: Meeting Denial with Courage and Compassion

Many of us in the West have been taught to avoid the subject of death. It is something we hide away from; we discuss death softly, in hushed tones, if we discuss it all. Sometimes we use language that makes it seem as if the deceased has done something wrong. We seek to uncover why someone has died, and to find a way to make it their fault. We actually say things like: “After a brave and valiant fight, she lost her battle with cancer.” We use this language so often that we might not even think about what we are saying. Would you really call your best friend who died from ovarian cancer a loser? Of course not. This kind of phrasing is so embedded in our discussions around death, that we do not even realize that what we are saying is that she tried but she failed. I get it: I used similar words in an obituary once myself. I tried so hard not to, but I did not know what else to say. Now I understand that what I wanted to convey was that someone had died: he had cancer and he did an awesome job of living his life with cancer until it was his time to die. To die is not a failure. It is a natural and inevitable part of our human experience.

Death denial is a coping mechanism deeply ingrained in the human psyche. A psychological defense mechanism that allows us to avoid confronting the inevitability of death, it also prevents us from developing a deep bond with impermanence, blocking our spiritual growth and preventing us from moving toward a release from suffering.

Engaging in death denial offers a sense of comfort and protection from the anxiety and fear of the unknown aspects of death. It allows us to maintain a semblance of normalcy in our lives. Death denial provides a false sense of protection from the difficult emotions that surface when we think about our own death, or the death of our loved ones. I say false sense of protection because the real protection comes from understanding the Dhamma.

Denying the inevitability of death can hinder our ability to live authentically and to fully embrace life in all its complexities. By avoiding discussions about death, we fail to address important end-of-life wishes and plans with our loved ones. Discussing death does not have to be gloomy or depressing. By engaging in conversations about death and dying, we can cultivate a deeper appreciation for life, strengthen our relationships, and gain a newfound perspective on what truly matters. Embracing the dance of life means acknowledging the reality of death with grace and compassion.

Emotional avoidance of death can lead us to anxiety, depression, or unresolved grief. When we develop the ability to have open conversations about mortality, we create deeper connections with our loved ones. And when we acknowledge our own fears, we are stepping toward a more peaceful existence.

Openness to thoughts and discussions about death support us in our Buddhist practice. By embracing the reality of death with courage and compassion, we can transform our fear of death into a source of wisdom and enlightenment. Courage supports us as we move forward to confront difficult topics, and compassion supports us when we turn away, or take a step or two back from difficult topics. We start with ourselves, with our own aversion to death, and then we can work with others. In this way, we have a solid foundation on which we can rely. Truthfully, we usually find ourselves dealing with our own thoughts and emotions about death while interacting with others. For example, when a beloved family member is dying, other family members will have different responses and different degrees of preparedness. Rarely is there a perfect scenario in which you have had the opportunity to be completely in a place of equanimity around the death of a parent, or sibling, or partner.

Have the courage to do what is needed to take of yourself and to acknowledge the difficult thoughts and emotions that are surfacing. Perhaps you are not as prepared for this death as you would like. Have the compassion to accept yourself as you are. Bravely continue on, face your fears, and recognize denial when it arises. Know that others around you are in a different place. Perhaps, there is someone who appears to be handling this more serenely. If this is true, can you spend more time with that person, and learn about the source of their strength? Some may be falling apart, while others are in deep denial, not even willing to accept that death is imminent. You might find the behaviors of others too much to process. This, too, is a call for courage and compassion. You might need to separate yourself, or you might draw on your reserves to be with others in a way that does not leave you in shambles. Be aware of the limits of your endurance. Use compassion toward others to help you accept where they are in relation to death denial, and use compassion toward yourself when you need to step away. Don’t forget to support yourself with time for contemplation—even if that is a short walking meditation around the hospital floor or a micro-meditation in your parked car.

Compassion toward ourselves and others in the face of death denial helps us to create a nonjudgmental environment. From this place of acceptance, we can approach the topic of death with patience and understanding. It might take many attempts to get the conversation started. Some people are never going to join you in this space. Others will eventually open up and share their fears, concerns, and beliefs. Continuing to revisit an unpopular topic does take courage, and when others join the discussion, they too are coming from a place of bravery. Engaging in these conversations can lead to deeper connections with the people around us and help us all feel less isolated.

Through courage and compassion, we can navigate the complexities of death denial and find peace in the knowledge that our time on this Earth is finite.

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Margaret Meloni: Death Dhamma
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