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Death: The Last Act of Life

Chapter 9: Death: The Last Act of Life

Tools for Handling Loss

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.

 

What is death?

Death is:

  • The ending of our temporal life, or the ending of our life on earth.
  • The last act of life on earth for all living things.
  • The terminal point to which all lives are directed.
  • The finality of existence on earth for all living creatures.
  • The passing on of living beings into a new state: spiritual, mystical, or a void.
  • A new beginning for both the organisms that die and for the living organisms that are left on earth.
  • The finality of pain and suffering on earth; the attainment of peace, quiet, and respite for all eternity.
  • The absence of the life-giving spirit, conscience, and will that makes a human a living, vital being.
  • Letting go of the spirit of life and will to live in order to exit this life.
  • The ultimate finality facing each one of us.

What are some consequences of death?

Consequences of death for the survivors are:

  • A need to readjust, refocus, realign, and change after a death.
  • A need to grieve and mourn the loss resulting from a death.
  • A need to fill the void resulting from a death.
  • A need to go on and face the future after a death.
  • A need to let go of the dead person, object, or idea.
  • There are rituals, rites, customs, traditions and ceremonies in reaction to death which survivors utilize to help them cope with the loss involved.
  • There can be a sense of shock, disappointment, or fear.
  • There can be a sense of guilt, remorse, or self-deprecation on the part of the survivors.
  • There can be confusion, disarray, or feelings of being lost and bewildered for the survivors.
  • There can be a feeling by the survivors of abandonment or rejection due to the death of a loved one.

 

What are some common responses when people are asked to discuss death?

  • “How morbid!  Why would I want to talk about death? What do I have to gain by such a discussion?”
  • “I hate talking about death. I avoid death at every turn in my life!”
  • “I avoid talking about life insurance; it reminds me of my mortality.”
  • “I have not made a will because it would make the fact of my eventual death real to me.”
  • “I can handle just about anything in life except death!”
  • “I find it hard to go to wakes and funerals.”
  • “I find funerals, wakes, and burials all so sad to attend. I choose to avoid them.”
  • “There are no easy things to say to the survivors.”
  • “It is so hard to talk about my dead loved one; I have to be strong and take care of everybody who asks me how I am feeling.”
  • “No one ever wants to discuss my loved one's impending death.”
  • “People avoid me now. How can I express my feelings about my loved one's death?”
What are some irrational beliefs people have concerning death?
  • You must be strong in facing the death of a loved one for the sake of the other survivors.
  • It is useless to get overemotional about death since it is a fact of life and we will all face many deaths in our lives.
  • Once you have had a big cry and let out your feelings, you have done the necessary grieving.
  • There must be something wrong with you if you are still getting depressed over a death that occurred over two years ago.
  • Death is the end; we must accept that there is nothing after that.
  • It is morbid to mention how a dead friend or relative would have reacted to a current situation.
  • Death is best left undiscussed.
  • There is no place in school curriculum for a discussion of death.
  • The only people who benefit from death are funeral directors.
  • It is best to get yourself pulled together as quickly as possible after the death of a loved one.
  • It is not manly to become overly emotional in dealing with the death of another.
  • Death is such a waste.
  • There is no way I will ever be able to survive your death.
  • You must take extreme measures to prevent death.
  • It is bad luck for married people to discuss their respective deaths.
  • If death is not discussed out loud, maybe it won't happen.
  • Death is a sign of human failure. It is the ultimate sign of our “not being good enough.”
  • Death is God's revenge on man.
  • You are always a loser in death.
  • No purpose can be served by a death.
  • Death is the ultimate revenge.

What are some specific behaviors people need to develop in handling death?

In handling any kind of death, you need to:

  • Fully grieve the resulting loss.
  • Deal with your denial of the reality of death and the reality of the loss it brings.
  • Cease the bargaining behavior being used to deny the reality of death and the reality of the resulting loss.
  • Work out your anger over the death and the resulting loss.
  • Handle the despair and depression resulting from the death and the resulting loss.
  • Let go of the person, event, or object in death and face the resulting loss.
  • Handle your fears about death and the resulting loss.
  • Look at death in an open, honest way; not hide from, avoid, or ignore it.
  • Accept its inevitability in your life and the lives of others.
  • Accept the changes that are a consequence of death.

 

What are some strategies in preparing for death?

  • Make it a point to visit a wake, attend a funeral, or send a sympathy card to the survivors.
  • Visit a critically ill friend or relative in the hospital, at home, or at a hospice.
  • Discuss your final wishes with your family.
  • Talk with your family about what steps you want them to take if you become so incapacitated that you are being kept alive by machines.
  • Prepare a living will.
  • Seek out and attend lectures, workshops, programs, and classes on death.
  • Visit the burial site of a friend or relative.
  • Listen to music that was a favorite of a dead loved one, or listen to music that has funeral or death themes.
  • Use a lawyer and prepare a will for yourself.
  • Read books, articles, and pamphlets on death and dying.
  • Talk openly with friends and family about death, its meaning, and its impact on your lives.
  • Write a letter to someone you have known and loved who has died. Tell the person how you feel about the death and your resulting loss.
  • Develop a list of feelings brought out in you by the concept of death.
  • If you had six months to live, what would you do- List your priorities.
  • Read the bible to learn God's promise concerning your death and the deaths of others.
  • Write an “in memoriam” tribute to yourself on the occasion of your death. What do you want to be remembered for?
  • Go to Chapter 10 Sharing Your Legacy of Tools for Handling Loss and write your own “Last Lecture” to be shared with your family and friends after you have died.
What steps can you use to handle the reality of death in your life?

 

Step 1 Before you can deal with death you need to recognize what your understanding about death is. Answer the following questions in your journal:
  • What is your definition of death?
  • What forms of death have you experienced?
  • What consequences of death have you experienced?
  • What are your religious beliefs about death?
  • How do you respond to someone's request to discuss death?
  • What irrational beliefs about death do your hold to?
  • How does your spiritual life prepare you for death?
  • How do you see God's role in death?
  • What new behavior do you need to develop in order to handle death better?
  • Which of the strategies listed in this chapter are you willing to pursue to prepare yourself better for death? Which ones are you adamantly opposed to? Give the reasons for your choices.

 

Step 2 Now that you have a better understanding of your perception of death, you are ready to pursue a creative outlet to explore death further.

My Creative Response to Death

For the next week or two work on one of the following tasks to explore your creative response to death:

  • Write a poem on death.
  • Write a song on death.
  • Draw or paint a picture on death.
  • Write a one-act play or a short story about death.
  • Create a three-dimensional artwork or sculpture on death.

Once your creative response is completed, share it with your family, relatives, friends, or support-group members. Explain in detail how it represents your response to death.

Step 3 Once you have shared your creative response to death, you are ready to work on your spiritual response to death.

My Spiritual Response to Death

This is a visualization activity requiring you to place yourself into a relaxed state in a quiet and comfortable place. Once you are relaxed, picture a lovely white building located in the inner reaches of a vast forest. There is a beautiful rainbow over the white building and a glorious sun is shining behind it.

 

You approach this lovely building slowly and cautiously. You sense that something special is waiting for you inside the building. You hear voices of loved ones lost to death in the past. They are singing. They seem so happy. They are encouraging you on your journey to the white house. They tell you there is nothing to fear inside the white house. As you get to the front door of the house, you find yourself feeling lighter and lighter. You are relaxed and at ease, fully reassured by the encouragement of your dead loved ones. You enter the house and hear a voice saying “Welcome. Be not afraid. Come to gain your reward for your life on earth.” You say, “But I am not ready to die.” The voice comes back and says “What have you left unfinished on earth that keeps you from joining your loved ones in eternal life?” You reply, “I have nothing of importance to equal the excitement, majesty, and beauty of your offer of eternal life.” The voice replies, “Well then, let us proceed with this next great adventure.” You walk on, following the voice into a brilliant light. You watch yourself disappear slowly into the powerful streams of light. The voice says, “Now that you have visited us, you can let go of your fear of death. Go back now and enjoy the rest of your life on earth.”

 

You turn around and feel yourself filled with happiness, contentment, and joy. You come out of the white house and enter the forest. You find yourself back in your original comfortable place. You count from three to one backward and open your eyes refreshed and relaxed.

 

Now consider answers to the following questions about your visualizations expereince and write them in your journal:

  • What did the forest signify?
  • What did the white house signify?
  • What did the rainbow signify?
  • What did your loved ones say to encourage you to enter the white house?
  • Whose was the voice you heard?
  • What unfinished business do you have left on earth?
  • How easy is it for you to leave the unfinished business behind?
  • What keeps you tied to the unfinished business in your life?
  • How comfortable were you in following the voice into the lightness?
  • How well did this visualization portray your spiritual journey into death?

Step 4 Once you have made your creative and spiritual responses to death, you are ready to develop your emotional response:

My Emotional Response to Death

Write your own eulogy in your journal. Follow these directions for eulogy writing: Emphasize all of your positive attributes, skills, and talents. List all of your accomplishments. List the essential goodness, kindness, and mercy you showed to others. Include a description of your humanness, your sense of humor, and your foibles. List your contributions to your spouse, your child(ren), your family, relatives, friends, professional colleagues, and neighbors. Include a compassionate word to your loved ones as to why they need to let you go to your death. Remind them that it is OK for them to miss you and to grieve your loss. Tell them they do not have to be strong at this moment, but rather they should be free to let go of their control. Tell them, however, that you expect them to go on as time passes to succeed in their lives. Ask them to live their lives to the fullest in your memory. Ask them to accept death as a reality and as the last act of life. Tell them how you prepared yourself for your death by writing this eulogy. Encourage them to do the same.

 

Select one or two songs that reflect the spirit of your love, energy, and enthusiasm for life. Record them to be played along with the reading of the eulogy. Place them with your will.

 

Now, get out the eulogy and record it. Play the music while you read and record your eulogy aloud. Mourn your death and let your emotions and feelings flow freely. Do this reading with the music whenever you find yourself having difficulty accepting death as your final act of life.

 

Step 5 Once you have completed your creative, spiritual, and emotional response to death you will be better prepared to handle the reality of death in your life. If, however, this is not the case, return to Step one and begin again.