Recently my husband and I were talking to our four-year old son about death. It came about because he wanted to break a branch off a tree to throw into the neighborhood stream. My husband told him to take a stick from the ground because it was already dead. Thus started the inevitable questions about what was alive, what was dead, and why things (and people) had to die.
That evening as I tucked him in he said to me, “Mommy, I don’t want to die.”
“I understand, buddy,” I told him. “But you still have a long life to live! My parents are still alive, and my grandmother is alive, too.”
“And she’s 101!” he exclaimed. I nodded and smiled.
He was quiet for a moment, and then said, “I have an idea! I just won’t have any birthdays. Then I won’t die.”
While we can chuckle at the innocence of a four-year old just learning about the meaning of death, the truth is that we seek ways to avoid death that are less creative than not celebrating our birthdays. We ignore it, avoid talking about it, and resist making decisions about it.
The problem is that over the past year, death has been impossible to ignore. It is literally in the air we breathe. Numbers ticking upwards on news channels as we cross off days on the calendar. In his December 2020 New York Times article What Is Death?, hospice and palliative care physician Dr. BJ Miller talks about how our awareness of death has changed:
“This year has awakened us to the fact that we die. We’ve always known it to be true in a technical sense, but a pandemic demands that we internalize this understanding. It’s one thing to acknowledge the deaths of others, and another to accept our own. It’s not just emotionally taxing; it is difficult even to conceive. To do this means to imagine it, reckon with it and, most important, personalize it. 𝘠𝘰𝘶𝘳 life. 𝘠𝘰𝘶𝘳 death.”
As Miller explains, “We really have only two choices: to share life with death or to be robbed by death.”
How did you feel about death pre-COVID? Has it changed a year into the pandemic? Are you finally ready to share life with death?
The pandemic has been an important contributor to changing my relationship with death, but it wasn’t the initial catalyst. After reading 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘎𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘈𝘳𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘚𝘸𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘴𝘩 𝘋𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩 𝘊𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘨, I started thinking about minimalism as a tool to alleviate the burden on the ones I love. As Dr. Miller, who works with patients at the end of their lives so eloquently said in his TED Talk, the things that are most important to people who are close to death are “comfort; feeling unburdened and unburdening to those they love; existential peace; and a sense of wonderment and spirituality.”
For me, peace comes from knowing that I am unburdened by removing everything that no longer serves me, and that I am unburdening the ones I love by making sure they don’t have to deal with my clutter or guess what my end-of-life wishes were.
The “technical paperwork” including my will, medical directive, funeral and cremation wishes, and eulogy are complete and accessible to my husband. But perhaps more importantly, I have made sharing memories, stories, and my unique gifts and abilities a priority. This includes creating a collection of my poems to share with my sons, telling the stories behind the things that I own that are meaningful to me, and writing down daily “magic moments” so my husband and boys can look back on them someday. My desire to alleviate the burden on the ones I love is what drives me to declutter, to simplify, and to continue to focus (and refocus) on what truly matters.
I am not inviting death to come early, rather, I see it as something that is walking alongside me and Life for however long I am here. I do not fear, avoid, or ignore death. It is here to teach me, and I am here to listen. Death inspires me to capture the stories of my past, to savor the present moment, and to have peace about the future. As Miller says, “If the past, present, and future come together, as we sense they must, then death is a process of becoming.”
Changing the way I view death has allowed me to more fully become the person I was meant to be. Who are you becoming?
About the Author: Emily McDermott is a wife, mother, and simplicity seeker, chronicling her journey at Simple by Emmy. She loves to dance, write poetry, and spend time with her husband and two young sons.