Margaret and David recently discussed the topic of graceful (or not) endings. You know the ones: a project ends, a marriage dissolves, or a loved one passes. In this post I share my thoughts on the ending we all face – our death. We can approach that with grace or with dread. The choice is ours.
My father, Nino Langiulli, died in the early morning hours on 14-October-2017, just a few days after his 85th birthday. We had the opportunity to take him out for dinner a few days before to commemorate his birthday and celebrate my parent’s 58th wedding anniversary. Both accomplishments in and of themselves are extraordinary.
My father was alert as we dined with him during his last supper with the family. He engaged in a lively discussion during a traditional mid-afternoon meal at a lovely Italian restaurant, where he enjoyed a full plate of linguine with clam sauce (one of his favorite Italian peasant dishes).
A few days later, on the evening before he died, we spent time with him in his room as he lay comfortably in bed with his consciousness passing through an intermediate state. We consoled him, held his hand, and stroked his hair. We spoke softly to him (which he could acknowledge) and let him know that it was ok to transition. A few hours later, he passed away peacefully in his sleep.
My mother, Elizabeth Langiulli, died three years later. Unfortunately, her passing involved more suffering. She was not ready to go. After many days of resistance in the hospital, she did come to peace with her mortality and resolved to give up the ghost. Like my father, I was by her bedside up until a few hours before her final breath.
More recently, my wife and I have been supporting my wife’s sister as she deals with terminal cancer. This situation is more difficult because she is a widow raising two school-aged children on her own. She’s waged a valiant effort with her healthcare professionals to stay alive. However, as with all of us, this disease may take its ultimate course, and the life force will exit her body. My wife and I have been doing our best to help her prepare for this possibility.
I share these stories of illness and death because they caused me to contemplate more deeply my own mortality. It’s a practice encouraged in both the Stoic and Buddhist traditions. It’s something I’ve practiced frequently since losing my younger sister and a close friend to suicide earlier in my life.
I’ve also had my fair share of near-death experiences. Late one night in the early 80’s I fell asleep at the wheel of my 1970s vintage Buick Skylark on a winding, twisting road in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The car veered into the borrow ditch and flipped on its side. I recall thinking: “How strange to see all that grass in the windshield!” Thankfully, the car flipped back onto all four wheels before coming to a rest. Besides some bumps and scrapes (and a bruised ego), I was fine.
About 20 years later, I experienced a crash of a different sort. That was the time I unskillfully crashed through a semi-frozen lake in the Wind River Wilderness Area of Wyoming with snowshoes on and carrying a 60-lb pack loaded with climbing gear on my back. Through it all, I remained surprisingly calm.
On another occasion, I climbed a non-standard route on Mt. Rainier in Washington State. We packed light, preferring speed over weight in an alpine-style ascent. Fortunately, I did include my bivy sack, recognizing that we would spend at least one night on the glacier before the more challenging final approach to the summit. Unfortunately, toward the end of the first day of climbing, we were enveloped by a dense, freezing fog preventing any advance or retreat. It’s the weather that Mt. Rainer produces to claim many climbers’ lives each year. Knowing this, we chose to dig shallow trenches into the angled glacier surface, set up our pickets on the downhill side (to prevent an accidental roll down the mountain during the night), and crawled into our bivy sacks.
Of the three near-death experiences, this one involved the most suffering. The cold and dampness cut to the bone. I shivered uncontrollably all night long (as did my climbing partners). Thankfully, the dawn came, and the fog lifted before hypothermia took its toll. We retreated down the glacier, stripped to our underwear, dried our gear, and warmed our bodies in the sun.
I think about these incidents frequently. I feel blessed to have confronted my death, as well as the passing of family members and friends at an early stage of my life, which allows me to more readily accept the eventuality of my body giving up its ghost.
Sadly, we live in a modern materialist culture that is, for the most part, unwilling to contemplate and confront death. Dead bodies are merely meat. They are to be quickly refrigerated and hidden away from view for subsequent burial or cremation. Children are no longer taken to wakes to pray with the dead body of a deceased family member or friend. Parents fear to upset their delicate sensibilities.
Try bringing up the topic of death (yours or someone else’s) with friends and family sometime. Watch the reaction. The subject of the conversation will quickly shift to lighter and more pleasant fare: “Oh, have you heard about the new restaurant opening downtown?”
I get it. Contemplating one’s demise is not comfortable. It arouses the most fundamental fear – the fear of death. That is why nearly every religious and philosophical tradition encourages us to do it anyway. In this context, I am most fond of The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ reflection in The Meditations where he reminds himself (and us) that:
“Death, like birth, is a mystery of Nature; the one a compounding of elements, the other a resolution into the same. Consider all those you have known, one after the other: think how one buried his fellow, then lay dead himself, to be buried by a third. And all this within a little time. In sum, look upon human things, and behold how short-lived they are: flesh yesterday, tomorrow ashes. Spend the fleeting remnant of your time in a spirit that accords with Nature and depart contentedly. So the olive falls when grown ripe, blessing the ground from whence it sprung, and thankful to the tree that bore it.”
“Live neither seeking nor shunning death. Whether the soul shall use its surrounding body for a longer or shorter time is to him indifferent. Were he to depart this moment, he would go as readily as he would do any other seemingly proper action.”
“The duration of man’s life is but an instant; his substance is fleeting, his senses dull; the structure of his body corruptible; the soul but a vortex. We cannot reckon with fortune, or lay our account with fame. The life of the body is but a river, and the life of the soul a misty dream. Existence is a warfare and a journey in a strange land. What then avails to guide us? Keeping the divinity within inviolate and intact; victorious over pain; and, above all, with equanimity awaiting death. Death is natural, and nothing natural can be evil.”
“Despise not death; but receive it well content, as one of the things which Nature wills. For even as it is to be young, to be old, to grow up, to be fully grown; even as it is to sprout teeth, and beard, and to grow grey, to beget, to go with child, to be delivered; and to undergo all the effects of Nature which life’s seasons bring; such is it also to be dissolved in death. It is not, therefore, a man of wisdom to be contemptuous about death; he should rather await its coming as one of the operations of Nature.”
“Depart then from your fellow men, not as if torn away; but let your going be like that of one who dies an easy death, whose soul is gently released from the body. Nature knit and cemented you together, but now she parts you from you. Part, then, as from relations, not reluctant, but unconstrained. For death, too, is a thing accordant with Nature.”
Also, in her excellent book, Making Friends with Death, Judith Lief reminds us that we know not how long we will live. And, unless we choose to commit suicide, we know not the manner of our death. In that context, she encourages us to meditate on the impermanence of all things, including our bodies.
I find the practice of contemplating death, examining it, and accepting it as a part of the cycle of life surprisingly calming.
I trust that by encouraging you to practice as well, you will experience your death with grace, peace, and tranquility.
David Langiulli is an Executive Coach, Jiu-Jitsu Practicioner, and Author. This post is an excerpt from his new book: Bringing the Human Back into Being.