Meet death sans fear

Death has always been and will always be with us: It is a fundamental part of human existence. Since the dawn of humankind, death has struck indiscriminately at rich and poor, famous and unknown, good and bad alike. It is perhaps this inevitable and unpredictable nature that makes death so terrifying to many people, especially those who put a heavy weight on being in control of their own existence.

But other societies have learned to deal better with the reality of death than we seem to do. It is unlikely that any group has ever welcomed death’s invasion of life, but there are others who have effectively incorporated the expectation of death into their epistemology of life.

In American society, the subject of death is avoided, ignored and denied. It is most likely because death reminds us of our human vulnerability in spite of all our technological superiority.

Although it happens all the time, we pretend not to see it. When a person dies, he is whisked away in a blink; a magical vanishing act does away with the evidence before it can upset anyone.

American adults routinely shelter children from death and dying because they believe that it is a way to protect their children from irreparable harm. By making death a taboo subject for children, we are denying the reality of its existence. It is apparent that we are, in truth, doing children a disservice by depriving them of the experience. We create fear that need not be there by separating the leaders of tomorrow from people who are dying or have died.

When a person dies, we “”assist”” their loved ones by doing things for them, by pretending to be cheerful, by putting make-up and materialistic items on the dead so the individual looks “”natural”” and alive. Again, this so-called assistance merely consists of acts of denial and apprehension.

Even American hospitals, a place where most deaths occur, consider death in some way one of their own unmentionables. In the hospital, patients do not die — they “”expire.”” Patients do not die in the operation room; rather, the patient is “”lost on the table.”” The hospital staff’s inability to simply say the word “”death”” suggests a refusal to believe and acknowledge its essence.

We abhor and reject the moment when we will face our death. Death is a casual matter when we read about it in a book or discuss it philosophically in the coffeehouse. The problem of death, on the whole, does not strike us in the heart.

Only when it is one’s own imminent death, or that of a loved one, do people feel the desire for life. We make a frantic fight to hold onto life while slipping over the edge to death. This is reality in battle with the fairy tale misconception of an eternal life. The solid possibility of our own death is so unimaginable that, by instinct, we deny the fact.

Instead of hiding death behind the sanitary walls of the hospital and the cosmetic disguise of the funeral home, we should recognize and accept death. Only by acknowledging its existence can we progress as human beings.

As strange as it may sound, one of the most prolific formulas for growth is found through the experiences of death. Individuals who have been lucky enough to share in the death of someone who understood its meaning seem better able to live and grow because of their experience. Those who have been wrapped up in the disaster of death during wartime and who have faced it with dignity without allowing their feelings to become numbed and nonchalant have come out from their experiences with growth and humanity greater than that accomplished through almost any other means.

Even when we have come to accept death as a vital part of life, dying is difficult. Dying means giving up life on Earth.

But if we can adapt a different perspective on death, to reintroduce it into our lives so that is comes not a dreaded enemy but an expected friend, then we will be able to live our lives with significance — with true appreciation of our momentary existence, and of the restriction on our time in this world.

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