I heard the most beautiful expression recently, on Joe Rogan’s podcast funny enough, when he was interviewing a guest, a journalist named Sebastian Junger, about the latter’s near-death experience. This guest had had a ruptured aneurysmal bleed in his driveway which almost claimed his life. As Mr. Junger hemorrhaged into his abdomen, he stated that he felt like he was being drawn into a dark pit, and at the same time sensed the presence of his father who had passed hovering above. Mr. Junger stated that he almost passed away that day but was able to be successfully resuscitated by the heroic efforts of EMS and the hospital where he went. He stated he initially could not wrap his head around the fact that he had almost passed away but then was told some very powerful words which changed his mindset of ruminating over what had happened: “Stop thinking of that moment as scary and start thinking of it as sacred.”
Those words convey the essence of our problem with death. We are so afraid of the concept of death we are unable to view its sacredness. Indeed, fear itself is “deathly” as in “deathly afraid,” meaning that there could be no worse fear than the fear of death. Yet, what if we chose not to fear but to understand, perhaps even appreciate? In my podcast episode, Slowing Down ALS, when I spoke with my eloquent guest, Terry Wiley, she avowed that being able to participate in the caregiving at the end of life was one of the most beautiful experiences she had ever had the privilege of participating in. If we could but for a moment put aside our terror, our horrific fear of mortality, and analyze it objectively, we might marvel at its ineffable mystery. Death, as I’ve said many times, is a powerful physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual transformation. Indeed, I feel the last aspect may be the most significant.
I pray that I can get my message across: death is not the enemy, a monster, or evil. Death is the most formidable journey each of us will ever take. Imparting this message, which runs counter to everything society teaches us about clinging steadfastly to life, is a gargantuan task and one I as a hospice physician grapple with every day. For even those in the midst of dying, consumed with the burden of their disease and not having encountered the message before, are often not fully aware of the sacred power of their moment. This is why the message needs to be imparted earlier than the dying moment. It needs to be imparted now, while you’re still alive reading this, while you’re still living. The sacredness of death needs to be discussed before we die. Otherwise, the secret of the incredible nature of death continues to die with the dying.