Life and death are a package deal. You cannot pull them apart.
In Japanese Zen, the term shoji translates as “birth-death.” There is no separation between life and death other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.
We cannot be truly alive without maintaining an awareness of death.
Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most. And the good news is we don’t have to wait until the end of our lives to realize the wisdom that death has to offer.
To imagine that at the time of our dying we will have the physical strength, emotional stability, and mental clarity to do the work of a lifetime is a ridiculous gamble. Without a reminder of death, we tend to take life for granted, often becoming lost in endless pursuits of self-gratification. When we keep death at our fingertips, it reminds us not to hold on to life too tightly. Maybe we take ourselves and our ideas a little less seriously. We let go a little more easily. When we recognize that death comes to everyone, we appreciate that we are all in the same boat, together. This helps us to become a bit kinder and gentler with one another.
As a companion to people who are dying, a teacher of compassionate care, and the co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project, most of the folks I have worked with were ordinary people. Individuals coming face-to-face with what they imagined was impossible or unbearable, walking toward their own deaths or caring for someone they loved who was now dying. Yet most found within themselves and the experience of dying, the resources, insight, strength, courage, and compassion to meet the impossible in extraordinary ways.
Some of the people I worked with lived in terrible conditions—in rat-infested hotels or on park benches behind city hall. They were alcoholics, prostitutes, and homeless folks who barely survived on the margins of society. Often they wore the face of resignation or were angry about their loss of control. Many had lost all trust in humanity.
Some were from cultures I did not know, speaking languages I could not understand. Some had a deep faith that carried them through difficult times, while others had sworn off religion. Nguyen feared ghosts. Isaiah was comforted by “visits” from his dead mother. There was a hemophiliac father who had contracted the HIV virus from a blood transfusion. Years before his illness, he had disowned his gay son. But at the end of life, father and son were both dying of AIDS, lying next to one another in twin beds in a shared bedroom, being cared for by Agnes, the father’s wife and the son’s mother.
Many people I worked with died in their early twenties, having hardly begun their lives. But there was also a woman I cared for named Elizabeth, who, at ninety-three, asked, “Why has death come for me so soon?” Some were clear as bells, whereas others couldn’t recall their own names. Some were surrounded by the love of family and friends. Others were entirely alone. Alex, without the support of loved ones, became so confused from his AIDS dementia that he climbed out onto the fire escape one night and froze to death.
We cared for cops and firefighters who had saved numerous lives; nurses who had tended to the pain and breathlessness of others; doctors who had pronounced patients dead of the same illnesses that now were ravaging their own bodies. People with political power, acquired wealth, and good health insurance. And refugees with little more than the shirts on their backs. They died of AIDS, cancer, lung disease, kidney failure, and Alzheimer’s.
For some, dying was a great gift. They made reconciliations with their long-lost families, they freely expressed their love and forgiveness, or they found the kindness and acceptance they had been looking for their whole lives. Still others turned toward the wall in withdrawal and hopelessness and never came back again.
All of them were my teachers.