Journey Group Packet 2014 Oct: Death

Journey Group Packet
2014 Oct

Meredith's Reflection

Then We Will Know How to Live

“Threescore years and ten” is the Biblically allotted lifespan. Thus British poet, A. E. Housman, at the young age of 20, looked forward to an estimated 50 more years.
Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
If we would celebrate the fullness of all of life, we will view with relief and gratitude that the separate identity that ego so ardently clings to does not have countless ages. What is ours to do is only this brief span: our three score years and ten, more or less. Mortality reminded Housman that we have only this moment. He chose, therefore, to walk about the woodlands, to be present to the beauty that is right now.

Remembering death, keeping it always in mind, makes us more present to life.
“Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.” (Louise Erdrich)
It is the very brevity of life that makes it full.
“What a puzzle it is that such brevity . . . makes the world so full, so good.” (Mary Oliver)
Therefore, the constant practice of the remembrance of death fills our days with life.
“If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid.” (Dame Murial Spark)
We all know that all things are temporary, but we don’t act like we know it. We keep going after achievements and acquisitions as if we thought they and we were permanent. What would it be like live the truth of impermanence rather than merely know it?

Because all things are temporary, and constantly changing, then death is constantly occurring. The you that you were last year, or yesterday, or 5 minutes ago, has ceased to be: that person has died. The original Star Trek TV show in the 1960s introduced us to an imaginary technology called a "transporter beam." Supposedly, it takes your molecules apart and reassembles the molecules down on the planet surface. In essence, the transporter beam kills you and then re-creates you somewhere else. I mention this hypothetical Star Trek technology to call attention to a not-at-all-hypothetical fact of our lives. Through the technology of merely being alive, we are continually being killed and replaced by replicas of ourselves. At every moment, you are killed and replaced with a replica that has most of your memories, most of your skills and habits, looks mostly like you, etc. The replica is not exactly the same because all these aspects of you are, after all, constantly changing. To be alive is to change, and change means the death of what was.

Others have noticed this intricate linkage between life and death. They have experienced the liberation that comes with thoroughgoing awareness of death and impermanence. Grasping the fullness of death brings us to the fullness of life.
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.” (Martin Heidegger)

“Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.” (Montaigne)
In that freedom that comes from constant awareness of death, we finally dissolve those boundaries we construct between self and “other.” Dwelling there we realize the beauty, wonder, and oneness of all things. By looking squarely at death and embracing it, we learn how to live.
“We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually.” (Larry Rosenberg)

“The best preparation is working with our state of mind now rather than thinking about exotic things we might do later when we are looking death in the eyes. It is better to learn to relate to death now, when we still have the strength and ability. In that way, when we face difficult circumstances, or at the time of death, we can rely on what we already know.” (Judith Lief)
I think it helps us "relate to death now," to keep in mind that life is constituted by death. Maybe the transporter beam called Time will reconstitute your pattern in the next moment, and maybe it won't. Either way, the being you experience as yourself this second is gone the next second. Why wrap so much anxiety around whether or not a very-nearly-identical replica will supersede you? Why have any anxiety whatsoever about that?

The Spiritual Exercise

Plan to take 30 minutes for this exercise. It’s a “guided contemplation.” Don’t rush it. Take your time and let each part really sink in.

Adapted from Judith Lief, Making Friends with Death (2001):

The practice of contemplating death should be done slowly and methodically. During the practice, when your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the topic at hand. Keep it simple and personal. All you need to do is go through the text step by step and reflect on what is said.

1. Sit quietly for 5 minutes, paying attention to the feeling of your breath going in and going out. (Recommended: set a timer for 5 minutes so you won’t have to be distracted by looking at a watch or clock.)

2. Say these words quietly three times: “Death is real. It comes without warning. No one escapes it. My body will soon be a corpse.”

3. Read the following 12 paragraphs, pausing after each one and and reflecting on it for a 2-3 minutes before moving on to read the next paragraph. Pay attention. Do not let your mind wander.
  • Think of someone who has just died or is about to die. Notice how you feel. Notice the sorrow you feel to lose people you love, the relief you feel to lose someone you dislike or someone who has become a burden, and the indifference you feel to lose people you don’t know or care about.
  • Think of your own death. It is certain that you, too, will die. Imagine that your death is right before you, as close as if a murderer were holding a knife at your throat or you were walking down the corridor to your own execution.
  • Think of the friends you have lost already and those you will lose in the future, for you will lose them all. Think of all the possessions you have acquired so lovingly, for soon you will have none of them. Think of the projects you will never complete, the places you will never see, the answers you will never know.
  • Think of your body and how it is aging, how it is prey to sickness and stress. Remember that you will lose your body one day, that it will become cold and stiff, a corpse to be buried or burned.
  • Keep in mind that death comes to everyone. Rich or poor, famous or ordinary, wise or ignorant – every single living being faces death. Think of how hard all beings large and small struggle to live.
  • Think of the frailty of all forms of life. The slightest mistake can end a life, and minute change in the environment can make whole species disapper. Think of the many close calls you have had in which only your good luck kept you alive and how your luck could easily turn.
  • Think of how unpredictable death is. You do not know how long your life will be. You do not know in what manner you will die. And you do not know with whom you will be when you face your death, with friends or complete strangers.
  • Think of the limited extent of your life and how quickly it will pass. Think of the many beings whose life spans are even shorter than yours, such as your pet dog or cat, or little insects who live less than a day. Think of the many lives lost in the time it takes to do this exercise.
  • Now imagine that you are in your final decline and your death will occur within days. Think of what it must be like to know it is no longer a dream but reality. It is right in front of you.
  • Now imagine that your death is not days away, but it is coming this very day, within hours. Sense it approaching you.
  • Now let it come closer still, to the instant of drawing your last breath. Think of the shortness of that moment.
  • Now sit quietly and feel each breath as it goes in and out. Feel the life of each breath, how vivid it is and how it dissolves into the space around you. Note the gap as one breath dies and the next has not yet come. Feel the incredible momentum of life, the rhythm of one breath after another, going in and out. Feel the way in which you contact your own death at every moment, with each breath you take. Rest in the immediacy and simplicity of that experience.
4. Say these words quietly three times: “Having contemplated the reality of death, may I face death fearlessly and help others through this difficult transition. May I participate fully in the ongoing dance of life and death. May I never forget the preciousness of life.”

Questions your facilitator may ask at your Journey Group: How did this exercise make you feel? Uncomfortable? Relieved? Scared? What ideas or images came up for you during the exercise? On your own, would you do this exercise again? Why or why not?

Questions to Live With

As always, don’t treat these questions like “homework.” You do not need to engage every single one. Instead, simply look them over and find the one that “hooks” you most. Then let it take you on a ride. Live with it for a while. Allow it to regularly break into – and break open – your ordinary thoughts. And then come to your Journey Group meeting prepared to share that journey with your group.

1. What is death?

2. What would it be like to live the truth of impermanence rather than merely know it?

3. Is death part of life or all of it?

4. Do you have a “bucket list” of things to do before you die? Is the list of things done once a meaningful measure of a life?

5. What would you do in your last day if you had 24 hours to live? In your last year if you had one year to live?

6. How old were you when the first person close to you died? How did that experience change you?

7. Review the 20 quotes included in this packet (8 in the opening reflection and 12 more in the “wise words”). Which of them do you most resonate with? Which seem wrong or particularly unhelpful?

8. On an average day, how aware of death are you? What difference would it make if you were daily less aware of it? More aware of it?

9. What do you wish you knew or better understood about death?

Recommended Resources

As always, this is not “required reading.” We will not analyze or dissect these pieces in our group. They are simply meant to get your thinking started – and maybe to open you to new ways of thinking about what it means to live with happiness and joy.

[See the 8 quotes included in the opening reflection]

What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms.
― Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.
― Steve Jobs

While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.
― Leonardo da Vinci

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.
― Mark Twain

It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we're alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.
― Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

The thought that you could die tomorrow frees you to appreciate your life now.
― Angelina Jolie

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.
― Albert Pike

I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.
― Jack Kerouac

I had seen birth and death but had thought they were different.
― T. S. Eliot

None of us, in our culture of comfort, know how to prepare ourselves for dying, but that's what we should do every day. Every single day, we die a thousand deaths.
― Joni Eareckson Tada

You only live twice: Once when you're born -- and once when you look death in the face.
― Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
― Dylan Thomas


Make of death a study. Only then will life become clear. A number of excellent books on death are well worth study.

Judith Lief, Making Friends with Death (2001)

Larry Rosenberg, Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive (2000).

Stephen Levine, Healing Into Life and Death (1987).

Ira Byock, Dying Well: The Prospect for Growth at the End of Life (1997)

Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie (1997). (See also: Morrie Schwartz, Letting Go: Morrie’s Reflections on Living While Dying (1996)).

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973).


Departures (a Japanese film about a young man who studies the art of preparing the dead)
Cherry Blossoms (a German film about a man who mourns his wife in unique ways)
Defending Your Life (with Albert Brooks)
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)

Perry’s Family Page
by Perry Montrose, Director of Lifespan Religious Education and Faith Development

Talking about Death with Children and Youth

Wherever there is life, there is death. As great observers of their environment, children notice death in the world around them and they attempt to grasp what it is about. Depending upon their developmental age, children and youth consider the issue of death in very different ways, about the permanency of it, their personal relationship to it, and what it means.

Like many other sensitive topics, children and youth will be exposed to death and thinking about it, whether parents talk about it directly or not. Adults’ openness to discussing the topic gives the opportunity to know children’s feelings, be an active guide in negotiating the difficulties surrounding the issue, and provide a safe place for children to process their questions. Children often have thoughts and questions that are different than we may expect. Therefore, it is most important to let the children guide the conversation and say what is on their minds. If there is an open door to conversation, children will ask questions and share what they are thinking so adults can meet them where they are. The concern a child has may be different than the concern you have for them or think they may have. As adults, the greatest gift we can present to children is a listening ear to their processing and a trusted space in which to express thoughts and feelings.

Questions and thoughts about death may come up from seeing the cycle of life in nature, a dead animal outside, or a character on a television show. When a child loses a pet the reality of death enters life on a different level. This becomes further palpable when a person in their life passes away. The loss of a family member or friend brings the issue into the moment and includes their own process of grieving, in addition to the need for understanding. This can be a difficult situation for parents and adults who feel a deep need to protect children and make their world a safe comfortable place. Even during these difficult times, it is most important to be a listening presence and discover where the child is with the process of understanding and grief.

Like adults, children can have an array of feelings when losing someone they care about - sadness, emptiness, confusion, pain, anger. There is not one answer on what the right thing is to say or what an individual child might be thinking. The death of someone in children’s lives can bring worry about their own mortality and fear about losing other people significant to them. It is most important to create a feeling of safety and assurance about their own well-being and their loved ones being there for them. It is also all right if children do not want to talk about their feelings right away. It is most important to simply continue to listen for their comments and questions that may come later when they are ready.

Whether a general conversation arises or a specific situation related to death, there are many resources to support parents in talking to their children. Here are just some of what is available:

The hospice website has some very good material on how to talk to children about death, including specific phrases to use and an explanation of developmental differences:

Earl A. Grollman, Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child.
A UUA resource on talking to your children.

Pat Schwiebert, Tear Soup.
A wonderful story about grieving and our connection to one another.

Leo Buscaglia, The Fall of Freddy the Leaf.
A beautiful lifecycle story that UU families have found coincides with their views on death.

Two books that talk about death in the context of pets are:
Betsy Hill Williams, Jane Rzepka, Ken Sawyer, Noreen Kimball, About Death: A Unitarian Universalist Book for Kids.
Judith Viorst, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney.

Some parents have found these books helpful and beautiful to share with their children:
Brian Mellonie, Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children.
Warren Hanson, The Next Place.

Pat Thomas, I Miss You: A First Look at Death.
May be helpful for younger children.

Laurie Krasny Brown, When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death.
A comprehensive but accessible for children in presenting all of the facets of coping with death.

Jacques Taravant, The Little Wing Giver.
Explains how angels got their wings and does not directly address death, but some UU families have found it spiritually nurturing and a lead-in to questions about heaven, God, etc.

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