The Scary Unknown

Human beings come well-equipped with a fear response. It exists for good reason, but somehow we’ve let it run away with us. Not just individually, but collectively. And most of us live from collective fear without even recognizing that’s what we’re doing.

Cultural stories… 

The meta-narratives, the big stories of a culture, are pervasive and powerful. I first became aware of this while teaching college students about consumer issues. In Western culture, there is an ingrained story that more is better, bigger is best, and it’s our duty to spend profusely in order to keep the economy going. Underlying this story is fear—fear of not having enough, not doing enough, not being good enough.

The unknown is also fear-inducing, and therefore becomes the basis of other meta-narratives. Dying falls in the category of a scary unknown, and collective anxiety about death lurks around people of all ages in Western culture. It doesn’t help that most of our impressions about dying come from movies and tv dramas, which by their nature emphasize drama in their presentation.

Our collective death phobia has caused us to sanitize the experience, keep our distance as much as possible, and attempt to postpone the inevitable by every means available.

Irrational and unconstructive desires and decisions are a consequence of acting from fear.  We aim for quantity of life rather than quality. Doctors often have to deal with adult children pleading that a dying parent be given further chemo, attached to life support tubes and pumps, or be resussicitated—even when the dying parent is clearly ready to go and trying to disembody.

Curiosity instead of fear…

Some things are truly unknowable, but much of what we fear is simply not yet known to us.

One way to deal with fear is to learn the truth of the matter, to explore and learn in a neutral way. This might be through direct experience (thought not so much when it comes to dying!) Sometimes we learn from others who have studied the matter or experienced it themselves.

In the case of death as a scary unknown, we have two good sources of insight. One is doctors and nurses who work with dying people in the medical specialty known as palliative care. The second is individuals who have gone nearly all the  way though the dying process but not taken the final step. Near-death experiences (NDEs) have now been well studied. Below you’ll find a link to an excellent documentary.

And right here I’m including a not-to-be-missed TED talk by Kathryn Mannix, a highly acclaimed palliative care doctor who has cared for thousands of dying people during her long career.

Facing the not-yet-known…

When you face a not-yet-known event, it helps a lot to know what to expect as you move through it. When you’re mentally and emotionally prepared, you don’t over-react. And when you remain calm and composed, the experience goes more smoothly from an energy perspective.

Many have found that watching this video made the prospect of death less scary. I hope you did too.

Information is helpful but…

Understanding how things really work goes a long way to allaying your fears, but there’s another aspect  to deal with—the effect of the meta-narrative on your psyche.

Because cultural  stories are so pervasive and compelling, we frequently take them on as our own without realizing it.

This is important to know—the power of the meta-narrative— so you can discern which fears are yours and which you have taken on from the collective consciousness. Once you’ve discerned what is not yours, you can send it back.

Return to sender…

You are in charge of what you keep in  your energy field. What follows is a simple way to discover unwanted thoughts or beliefs and remove them from your field.

  1. Pay attention to things that come up in daily life. If you notice, for example, that you’re preoccupied with a particular thought, or obsessively worrying about something, or avoiding thinking about something…you are on the track to discovering a belief you might want to explore.
  2. Sit or lie comfortably in a quiet space, eyes closed, and take a few slow breaths. Have a sense of settling deep into the core of your being.
  3. Consider the thought in question from the perspective of where it came from. It’s as simple as asking Is this mine?
  4. Listen for an answer. People have many different ways of communicating in their inner world. For me, I feel it in my bones; I just know if the answer is yes or no. Some people see clear images. I have never seen an image yet but I get impressions. I can’t really describe them but they give me information. Some people hear things. You may have another way. Or you may not have had any of this sort of communication yet. The good news is, it’s an exploration and we all become more skillful with time and practice.
  5. Return to sender. Once you have discovered a thought that you adopted from an external source, you are entitled to return it if you no longer want it. It’s as simple as declaring: Return to sender. Some people prefer to say: Return to sender with love.
  6. Thereafter, remember it is no longer part of your operating system. Humans are easily habituated, so it may take a bit of conscious effort to prevent reacting in old ways, even if the belief is no longer there. The good news is, you can do it if you want to.

Bibliography

Rethinking Death: Exploring What Happens When We Die 

In Rethinking Death, scientists, physicians, and survivors of cardiac arrest explore the liminal space between life, death and beyond, breaking down these stunning scientific breakthroughs to tell the remarkable, scientific story of what happens after we die.

New York University Grossman School of Medicine

So here’s the thing ~

I’m thinking and nothing has gelled yet.

So until that happy day, here are a few of your and my favourite posts in case you missed them.

Stop. Take a breath.

*** Time for this post? Two minutes and that’s it!

My family and friends know that I can be pretty focused when I hone in on a project. That has certainly been true as I’ve been learning about dying. My motivation is to be able to help myself through the process when the time comes…and to share what I learn along the way.

The downside of such focus is that single-pointedness can arise. So I’ve been consciously tuning in to counterbalancing viewpoints. I heard this quote in a recent radio interview… Continue reading

Setting the tone when you’re seriously ill or dying…

-*** Time for this post? Reading…8 minutes. Viewing…9 minutes. Thinking about what you would do…as you wish.

After writing last week’s blog about being with the dying, it occurred to me that…

As such, we have responsibilities…

Continue reading

Being with a Person who is Dying

*** Time for this post?  Reading…5 minutes. Viewing…an hour, but not necessarily all at once.

My life has not yet required me to be on hand when someone is dying. And I’m pretty sure that can’t continue. So I’ve been looking for good information about how to be with someone who’s near the end of life.

Visiting someone who’s dying…

I found an excellent article about deathbed visiting which offers very practical tips based onthe author’s challenging experience of managing the death of a family member at home. Continue reading

Quantity of life … or quality?

*** Time for this post?  Reading…2 minutes. Viewing…19 minutes. Taking it in…as you wish.

BJ Miller, a hospice doctor, says, “At the end of our lives, what do we most wish for? For many, it’s simply comfort, respect, and love.”

Yet the statistics show that most of us in our over-medicalized Western culture do not die that way. And it’s easy to see why.

Doctors are trained to keep us alive, There are a lot of treatments they can offer before giving in and saying the dreaded sentence, “There’s nothing more we can do.”

Now, let’s be clear. The blame doesn’t lie solely on the shoulders of doctors. We, the people who are offered these treatments, may not yet have come to terms with the fact that we will surely die sooner or later. In this mindset, we aim for quantity of life and lose sight of the quality of life we may really be aching for.

When we are uneasy about our inevitable death, we grasp at any possibility that’s offered to us. Yet, as Stephen Jenkinson says, the “more-time” bargain we make to avoid the end of life has consequences we never imagined.

Quality of life as we near the end…

Continue reading

What is a Death Doula?

***  Time for this post? Reading…5 minutes. Viewing…8 + 57 + 13 minutes. Exploring the highlighted resources…ongoing.

A doula is a non-medical person who provides support and nurturing to a person in life transition. Birth doulas provide information and nurturing care before and during birth, and death doulas do the same in the days and months leading up to death.

Death doulas generally have a holistic view that encompasses the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of end-of-life experiences, working with the family as well as the individual.

Other terms used to describe this work include end-of-life doula, end-of-life coach, end-of-life guide, death midwife, soul midwife, transition guide, death coach, and doula to the dying. Practitioners may have completed a certification course for death doulas, and usually bring a rich background of other training and skills that help them guide people through the end-of-life experience.

Who is a death doula?

Continue reading

Footwear too cool to dispose of.

***  Time for this post? Reading…7 minutes. Thinking about why you keep what you do…optional.

I know people who feel they must purge their living and storage spaces before they die. Their intention is to make it easier for their family to wrap up their affairs. What a shame!

True, it might help the family dispatch the estate efficiently. But what will they miss out on?

My take on that…

I think there’s something to be gained when others go through what we leave behind. They may learn things about us that they didn’t know, remember long-forgotten events, and gain perspective on who we were.

The way I see it, this is part of our legacy—and we are shortchanging our survivors if we leave a stripped-down version of our life.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for leaving an unholy mess. Like Margareta Magnusson, I think I should take responsibility for what I keep. And part of what I want to keep is those things that illustrate my history. For example…

Footwear too cool to dispose of…

Continue reading

What does normal dying look like?

*** Time for this post? Reading…2 minutes. Viewing…4 minutes. Revisiting the video…as often as you need to.

I’ve never seen someone die. I probably will in the next while. I don’t know what to expect. So I’ve been looking into it and have found some reassuring information.

Dying is not as bad... Continue reading

When is enough enough?

***Time for this post?  Reading… 8 minutes.  Viewing…12 minutes. Exploring what is deeply satisfying to you…as long as it takes.

It’s not easy to know when to call it quits, to speak up and change course when we’ve had enough.  This bold action requires us to think deeply about what’s important, and to take a stand for it…even when those around us have a different opinion about what we should do.

We are not enculturated to live—or die—on our own terms.

How much is enough?

… “enough” is not a number—it’s what is deeply satisfying.

The above quote is from Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, my book about using our resources intentionally. It helps us all navigate the consumer culture without being consumed by it.

As I learn more about the way we die in the West, I keep seeing parallels between consumption of consumer goods and our engagement with healthcare services. In both cases, we can end up being used by the system rather than served by it. Continue reading