Death, in a typical American household sounds just dreadful, doesn’t it? Old folks’ homes are generally perceived as ghastly places. Our culture shames parents especially directed towards mothers when they have a dying child. Worse yet, a still born baby. The vision of the Grim Reaper. This idea that only those who ‘deserve’ or are ‘supposed’ to die will. 

We promote a fear-based, shame-intense shadow around Death. It causes children (and many adults) to feel terrorized at the idea of seeing grandma in a nursing home. It causes strangers and loved-ones alike to fear people who are nearing the end of their life span. We’re afraid to ‘catch our death.’ But, why? This questions how we perceive the dying process. This is fundamentally philosophical. 

We fear unknown, uncertainty. That makes sense from a survival perspective. I have a need to feel relatively certain about the safety of my vehicle, the source of my next meal, how I can afford my utility bill to keep on the heat. Is it possible that, even if we can’t know exactly the time, day, circumstances, and precise next moments in the after-life that we can release the fear and, dare I say, prepare ourselves with joy in the labor of death and dying? What could that mean for our own end of life healing, for our living loved ones’ grieving and healing journeys? What could that mean for our culture?

In dying, our bodies go through a series of emotional and physical changes. Hormonal balances change, physiological changes all which bear on our shifted thinking. Many deeply consider mending relationships, leaving final words, sharing wisdom, showering children with their blessing. Others cower, hide, wither away into the darkness. If our culture embraced those reaching the end of their days – regardless of age or condition, I believe we would all Live more joyfully in the present. 

Is one’s process of dying truly any lesser or different than a woman laboring in birthing a baby? In preparation of labor and birthing, a mother will change physically, emotionally, hormonally, physiologically. She may consider mending relationships, seeking wisdom and blessings from her family. For her, we offer “showers” of love and affection. 

Why do we not shower, publicly and openly, a Life lived? The answer is simply that we, the non-dying, are not comfortable in our own pain/grief and that the person at the end of her life may feel compelled to ease her loved ones’ pain. Basically, everyone is hiding out, energetically and emotionally running away from the pain. I say, lean in and embrace each other. Offer community. Really SEE the person, give her respect and value in her laboring working of dying. And from that safe place, everyone is comforted.

I submit that offering open and unafraid celebration of a person’s end of life would ease her Labor of dying. Birthing into ‘whatever is next,’ whatever her belief. 

I wish my parents would have included me as my great grandparents were coming to the end of their lives. I remember my parents announcing one or another had died. I was not permitted to attend the burial at the cemetery, lest it be painful, or I misbehaved. Children have such an opportunity to learn about the treasure of life when we include them in death and dying, to permit them to feel pain, to say goodbye, to receive their elders’ blessings. To give their thanks and respect. 

Parents with dying children benefit from a safe place to see their baby, speak baby’s name, and to ensure the child’s memory is woven into their family’s histories. 

Dying matters. When the time comes to say “goodbye” rather than “see you later,” we can offer ourselves and our dying loved ones permission to release the burden of the struggle between human will and spirit. 

Randi Johnson