Death is Not Good or Bad
It’s been a tough year in the American zeitgeist. We have endured perhaps the most grueling and divisive election cycles in modern history. The experience of which felt very much like the disintegration of the only governing structures we have ever known. 2016 has been disorienting, chaotic, and downright scary at time. Add to this, a seemingly disproportionate number of celebrity deaths and it has started to feel like some sort of apocalyptic cultural cleansing.
The one that really hit me hard was David Bowie. For one thing, he had just released what turned out to be his final album, with a set of gorgeous images of him looking so vibrant and alive. He hid illness entirely from the public—no small feat in this technology-enabled, privacy-deprived culture, in which we somehow have grown to feel entitled to know everything about everyone down to the minute details of their personal lives. And then there was the narrative of his wife and kids. His late-in-life love affair with supermodel Iman was the stuff through which we could live vicariously.
I was shocked and sad. It was hard to imagine living in a world without the enormous life force called Bowie. I quickly acknowledged that he lives on in the world through a lifetime’s worth of artistic contribution. The fact that he is no longer in his body hardly diminishes his presence. And while my heart aches with empathy for his family, it is not my story and frankly, not my place to adopt their pain and make it mine.
As the year comes to a close, and we witness the death of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds back-to-back, a trend surfaced on Facebook. For days, my newsfeed was an endless stream of status updates that read, “FUCK YOU 2016! No, seriously. Go fuck yourself.” or “Not fair, 2016. That was a low blow.” or “Really, 2016?! How many more are you going to take from us?” I find the idea that the current calendar year is somehow responsible for death bizarre, and as the collective voice grew louder and louder with anger and protest, so did my frustration, until yesterday I posted the following on my personal Facebook page:
“I’ve been baffled and disappointed by the pervasive lack of skill I see in handling death. The choice to be victimized by a calendar year—which is a human construct to begin with—and then the assumption that death is inherently bad…that people die too soon… Really?! Do we believe that Prince and Bowie and Carrie all owed it to us to stick around, or even wanted to stick around? Clearly at a soul level they did not. How arrogant to think that we have a clue how this all works. We have no idea what divine contracts others have. The timing and manner of people’s deaths is between them and the Great Spirit. We don’t get to weigh in. Sitting in sadness and sorrow without making up fairy tales about how wrong it is that people die…THAT is the opportunity here. Do the work.”
No surprise, my words elicited some impassioned responses. For the most part, my voice resonated with my friends who have been feeling similarly. But there were a few people who found my words “brazen and cold,” or reminded me that everyone is allowed to grieve in their own way. One friend accused me of “spiritual arrogance.”
I let the comments roll in and sat with it all for a bit to let any defensiveness on my part dissipate, and then posted this:
“I knew when I posted yesterday about Death that I would cause a stir. I made a conscious choice to stand in my own truth and express myself freely and authentically. I too have an emotional reaction to so many of my favorite artists leaving the planet, especially at a time like this. I am not cold or unfeeling. And although my tone was a product of frustration and disappointment with what I perceive to be a persistent knee-jerk victim posture in the collective, I have deep compassion for the process of grieving and coping with loss. My point yesterday might have been more effectively communicated had I gently suggested that we resist the urge to join the cultural tidal wave of shock and horror at how 2016 could be so cruel to us, and in the process lose the opportunity to meet death in a way that allows us to be intimate with the loss, letting go, and ultimately living and loving. I am not sorry I chose the words I did, but I do want to acknowledge the few souls who took me to task to make sure that I allow people their processes and be mindful not to judge. I hear you, and I honor you. Thank you for engaging in this conversation about perhaps the only bigger taboo than sex (my other favorite button pusher). I share with you this quote from one of my favorite teachers and role models, Roshi Joan Halifax. She has devoted her life to the exploration of consciousness and death, and holds much wisdom on the subject.”
“In accepting death as inevitable, we don’t label it as a good thing or a bad thing. As one of my teachers once said to me, ‘Death happens. It is just death, and how we meet it is up to us.’” —Roshi Joan Halifax
More than anything, I am deeply satisfied to have opened a conversation about death and how we meet it. It’s the sleepy auto-response engagement with the world that I seek to shine a light on, so that we may grow deeper, wiser, and more open-hearted over time as we navigate this crazy life. Ultimately, we are born alone and we die alone. In the meantime, as Ram Dass says, we are all just walking each other home.