Written by Brett Venter
“What a noble thing is the soul ready for its release from the body, if now must be the time, and prepared for whatever follows – extinction, dispersal or survival.” - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
You are going to die.
If you are reading these words then it’s likely that you, or someone you know, has recently been diagnosed with cancer. You, or they, are afraid to say these words. But they will become a comfort if you let them, even though accepting death as a part of life doesn’t come easily for everyone.
You are going to die.
This is a truth that cannot be changed. It cannot be negotiated or negated. It’s an inevitability. Whether it's cancer, heart disease, COVID-19 or a pure, freak accident, you as a human being will one day come to an end.
You are going to die.
Whether you realize it or not, you need to hear these words in order to learn how to die peacefully. When the knowledge that you’re a finite being, doomed to a limited span becomes a reality you have to confront what follows:
You are going to die. But you are not dead yet.
The most natural thing in the world
Patients with cancer think about death constantly. So do the people that love them. But it’s rare that any sort of meaningful conversion around the phenomenon of death takes place. It’s considered depressing or impolite, a subject to be avoided. Discussion might make it all too real, or feels as though it will cause discomfort. This is a mistake. Embracing life means accepting death.
It’s a mistake to avoid death talk even if you’re perfectly healthy. It’s even more an error if you’re facing a potentially lethal disease and a lengthy and perhaps harrowing regimen of chemotherapy. But it’s an unfortunate fact that most of Western society has walled off death from our collective psyches. It’s unfortunate because death – the end of our time in the bodies we were born with – is the most natural thing that can happen to you. And it is not something to be feared. Accepting death is something that each of us, no matter how we wish we didn’t have to, will be faced with at some point.
A journey to the past
The perception of death as a frightening unknown is a relatively recent invention.
Traditionally, it was common that when a family member died, they were cleaned and prepared by their relatives then laid on the dining room table until a priest or an undertaker arrived to perform the rites needed to lay them to rest. Death was tangible. It was visible and known – as much as the living can know anything about it. It was almost mundane, real.
Now, death all too often happens surrounded by strangers who are paid to deal with it. Its existence is denied for as long as possible. When it arrives, we are unprepared for it. Accepting death was never a part of our paradigm.
Some cultures have a closer relationship with death. For example, the support structure that forms around the bereaved in the Jewish culture as they sit Shiva offers a closer connection to the phenomenon than is afforded to most in the Western world and, as a result, practitioners of Judaism have a better relationship with grief and death than those who hold other beliefs.
Hispanic culture typically constitutes a very hands-on process of caring for the dying up to the point of death and helping them learn how to die peacefully. This care is offset by premature grieving, which might take place out of view of the patient (perhaps to their detriment), while the family and religious representatives often present at the moment of death. The relationship here with death is close but may not always be in a patient’s best interests.
Among the Xhosa in South Africa, as with many traditional African beliefs, death is seen as a transition instead of a cessation of being. Prior to a funeral, the deceased has events explained to them while spending the night in the family home. On the day of the funeral, an animal is slaughtered, typically in front of mourners, which is cooked and must be consumed before the day is over.
Death is very present at these often-loud and boisterous events and subsequent mourning lasts a year before another animal is slaughtered, to call the deceased’s spirit back to join the pantheon of family ancestors who guide the living.
Why you need to face death as it is
If you, or a loved one, has been diagnosed with cancer, you’re worried that you’re going to die. This is natural. It’s scary to be told the end is near. It’s scary to contemplate. But it’s worth your time to do so. There are lessons taken from Stoic and Buddhist philosophies that can make it easier to cope with your diagnosis.
Both philosophies share similar beliefs on how death is an entirely natural, and necessary process. Some types of Buddhism use the realization of death as an inevitability to achieve what you might call enlightenment, which can be (badly) translated as an acceptance of life as it is now.
Attempting to explain wu, as it is known to Chinese buddhists or satori as Japanese Zen students know it, is like explaining water to a fish. Broadly, you achieve this state once you realize death is a certainty and you have little control over what happens between birth and death. Upon realizing the futility of and giving up searching for permanence in an impermanent world, often the answers being sought are perceived. The answer may be given - to paraphrase philosopher Alan Watts, you are what happens between the maternity ward and the crematorium - but this can only be understood when it comes from inside.
Stoic philosophy, which dates back to Ancient Greece, believes that death is a natural event and that only our attitude towards it makes an unpleasant experience. Death is a duty and, like all duties, it is best if it is performed well. Stoics follow several other practices also useful to the newly-diagnosed. Prime is the attitude that one’s emotions are subject to control but nothing else in the world is. Stoics do not believe that emotions should be shunned but they do believe rational choices may be made in place of emotional outbursts with enough practice and discipline. In short, they believe that all that you control is your response to what has happened to you. This is a fine attitude to cultivate.
Both philosophical schools teach that our very human conclusions are not to be feared. Indeed, an end to a long or painful life may be seen as a gift, a putting aside of burdens. When you begin seeing your demise as a reward for a life lived rather than a punishment, the road you travel there seems less strewn with unpleasantness.
Learning to Live
Accepting death for what it is – a natural process that is not to be feared – has a strange effect that both Buddhism and Stoicism are familiar with: it becomes easier to live. Anxieties are dispersed, mental paralysis is released, tensions within the body can be let go. Being constantly afraid consumes energy that might otherwise be used to live. It’s better to have this energy available to fight your cancer or to live out the remainder of your life than it is to clutch on to it in a fruitless attempt to deny the inevitable.
When you know – really know – that death takes place and that nothing you do will prevent it from eventually happening to you, every day becomes beautiful. You learn what it means to “live every day as if it’s your last”. It doesn’t mean to drink and party and destroy yourself as though there is no tomorrow. It means to appreciate every single bit of what you have, while you have it. This attitude can give you the strength you need to push through a particularly devastating day of chemotherapy. Or you could use it to simply enjoy time with your family.
Because it’s a fact that death is easy. Everyone can do it, with no training at all. Life is harder, but is nearly impossible to enjoy when you’re worrying over something you cannot prevent. Releasing that worry lets you live the sort of life, even in the midst of a cancer diagnosis.
Roman emperor and lifelong Stoic Marcus Aurelius said, “If, then, when you finally come to your exit … if your fear is not that you will cease to live, but that you never started a life in accordance with nature, then you will be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth.”
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