How We Die

Meg Barnhouse
October 5 2022

By Meg Barnhouse

"Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it."

—Haruki Murakami, in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: 24 Stories

I was at the bedside of a man in my congregation. He was dying. “I don’t know how to do this,” he said. He had been a professor, a scientist. He’d been mean to his wife, mean to his grown kids, mean to the people in the congregation. I was surprised at the openness of this moment.

“I don’t either,” I said. “I’ve sat by a lot of people while they were dying. It looks like you just go farther and farther away, and your body shuts itself down. Maybe it’s like falling asleep. You’ve done that plenty of times, right?” He was fighting, kicking at death like he had kicked at life.

One thing I’ve noticed as a minister is that people seem to die the way they live. Some want to be no trouble; they slip away when no one’s looking. Some want to be surrounded by family and friends; some want to be sung to, read to.

The end of life is a threshold time, meaning that it is a time when things come up for review. Families can reconcile or break apart. Often, emotionally wrenching decisions have been made.

Some people’s thoughts are of the people they’re leaving behind. Some people haven’t made any plans, any arrangements. Everyone’s been talking to them about “fighting,” and no one has asked what they would like to have happen at the end.

It’s good to give it some thought; that way you get to pick readings that say something about you, songs you like. No one who is crazed with grief has to figure all of that out. It’s your final message to those who have loved you.

I’m asking you to think about these things. Talk about them with your family before you get sick. Take care of your relationships so you won’t have any regrets that could have been fixed. Practice accepting help so you will be graceful to your caregivers, rather than surly.

What do you enjoy in your life? What do you want to hold on to? Write them down. Me, I want the song Skylark (YouTube) at the beginning of my service. It’s a sad song, and it’s going to be a sad time. I want people to cry.

Dying is scary, but we are brave, and we can talk about it together.

Prayer

Great Spirit of Love and Truth, let us remember that we are of the nature to die. No one gets to skip that part. Let me sink into the knowledge that my body will return to the trees. Earth is where I’ve come from, and to Earth I will return. Peace. Peace. Peace.