Making Peace with Death

“Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” So wrote the blind and deaf social reformer Helen Keller. Despite hardships, Life is wild and precious. Still, death comes for us all. Choosing peace in death as in life, we are empowered to decide how we will face death. Engaging those we love in that conversation permits them to be our advocates in carrying out our wishes, which affords them peace as well.

Life carries no guarantees except the certainty of death. Perhaps the only way to cheat death is to live fully into each and every day. That way, when death draws near, it finds us full of gratitude for Life’s richness.

As a hospital chaplain, I’ve observed that many people — people of all ages — are surprised when death arrives. It is, of course, a great sadness when death comes for children and young people. We don’t expect that; it is unfair. Life is both fierce and fragile; bodily systems break down; accidents happen.

We are perhaps the only species which lives with the knowledge of our death. As humans, we have the opportunity to be realistic about our time-limited lives. Recently a woman in her late 80s came into the hospital with a stroke. When her partner arrived, he was asked about her wishes for extraordinary resuscitation. He was shocked, confessing they’d never talked about it. From my own experience and from watching other families, it makes things so much easier if you’ve had these conversations in advance of the crisis. Sometimes the only comfort and peace you find is in following their wishes. 

The other day, I asked a palliative care nurse what he wanted people to know about death. Here is some of his advice:

  1. Death is natural. We can’t schedule it, as it arrives in its time and fashion. When your time comes, if you are able, give thanks, say goodbye, and let go.
  2. Engage in both practical and existential conversations about death, before the time comes. We are embodied people; our finite existence shapes our lives and gives them meaning.
  3. There are times palliative care and hospice are far better options than life-saving measures. Be realistic about the potential costs of heroic measures to a patient’s and your own quality of life.
  4. Decide what a death with dignity is for you. Make sure your loved ones and medical providers know your preferences by creating a written document known as an Advanced Directive.

As medicine becomes more sophisticated, there are more ways to keep us alive. For me, that question is how alive? Alive and thriving? Alive in great pain? Alive and functioning? If we don’t have those conversations now, we’re not going to know what to do when we or our loved ones are brought into hospital emergency departments. 

Years ago, and without the advances of medical science, we lived more intimately with death. Death was no less painful, but it was easier to be aware of death’s inevitability. Too few of us have end-of-life discussions with our family and friends. As difficult as it may be to think and talk about, there is Peace in having those conversations. 

Death could come at any moment. Since that’s true, I’m going to live as each day is precious, requiring me to celebrate. I invite you to do the same. Serving in the hospital, I am constantly reminded of human strength, resilience, and frailty. Since the timing of our death is unknown, even when we have a terminal disease, let us focus on living as fully as possible. Wring all the joy you can from each day. This is Peacemaking.

I’m not rushing into death, but if this were it, as my Jewish friends say, dayenu, it would have been enough. I have been fortunate in life, I am privileged, honored and grateful to be living a life I treasure.

Much of the Joy I experience comes from my commitment to Peacemaking, which shifts my focus from a simply personal life to joyful participation in a communal one. As the poet Mary Oliver reminds us:

To live in this life, you must be able to do three things:

To love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones

Knowing your own life depends upon it

And, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.

Salaam, Shalom, Peace, Blessed Be.