What if Death is Not a Failure?

By: Anne Pitman, Certified Yoga Therapist.

Having worked with cancer, both professionally and personally over the last 15 years, I’ve spent thousands of hours with people diagnosed with cancer.  Most have recovered and are now only in the shadow of that diagnosis.  Some have died.

It’s hard to talk about dying and death.  Seems especially hard after a diagnosis.  Yet, much of the anxiety present early on after a diagnosis can be traced to a fear of death.  Being with death, befriending it, as hard as it sounds, can reduce this anxiety significantly.  

When diagnosed with cancer, we want to live; very much. Life is habit producing, says Stephen Jenkinson author of “Die Wise”. We want a cure.  Or at the least, a little more time. In our culture we often die feeling gypped, like we got a raw deal, fighting every moment; all this in the presence of family and friends, who someday will arrive at their own deaths, most likely to repeat what they have seen.  

In my time as a witness to those who have died, by far the most difficult and tragic moments have been with those who have died interpreting their death as evidence that they have done something wrong; didn’t eat or exercise well enough, didn’t have the right job, didn’t follow their dreams, didn’t think positively enough.  This mostly learned cultural belief adds immense suffering to an already difficult time for patients and family.

But what if death isn’t wrong, isn’t something to beat?  What if it is the natural order of things?  And we, as living humans, are part of the natural order.

When I ask these questions, people often assume that what I mean is that we have to be “ok” with it, be “accepting”, that we must accept death in a chant-filled aura of peace. Not at all. Surely there is another way.

The best deaths I’ve witnessed have been an enormous wrestle, a rare balance of genuine sorrow and love, grieved to part with loved ones, but knowing that it must be so.  For the loved ones who survive, by far the most livable grief has been when the dying has been seen, and honoured as a time when we must lay down our fight and bow to this deeply human experience.

Our life force says live.  Yet our body needs to die – life needs us to die.  All around us, nature itself show us that death feeds life. We are not victims of death any more than we are victims of life.  It is not about giving up, no, it requires much more of us.  Perhaps the question is: how can we die, bequeathing to our loved ones our reluctant willingness to do so, and befriending death as an integral part of this bigger tapestry of life itself?