The Buddhists say we should “die a thousand deaths before we die,” and I think they may genuinely be onto something. I should know because I spent this whole weekend diving into death – and it was a life-changing experience.
It all started a couple months ago, when affable and larger-than-life “Saved By The Light” author, Dannion Brinkley, showed up at my Westside church requesting volunteers for his organization. Dannion is the head of The Twilight Brigade, an organization that trains hospice volunteers to sit compassionately at the bedside of dying veterans. Their motto is, “No vet need die alone.” And according to Brinkley, over 80% currently do.
If you aren’t familiar with Dannion Brinkley, he is a well-known, spiritual author and the only man I’ve ever known who has actually died three times (once from a lightning strike!) and lived four times. Does that make him lucky or unlucky? I guess it all depends on your perspective. Having gotten to know him, I feel it makes him lucky, because he has a bold, all-encompassing love of life that is positively irresistible.
On that Sunday he asked us to volunteer, I had been asking God to send me just the right charity opportunity (be careful what you wish for) and I’ll be damned if this death-thing wasn’t it! I could feel it in my bones – or probably more accurately, my heart. You can’t really pick these sorts of things. They choose you.
After church, I did some research on the Twilight Brigade’s training opportunity and found out it fell on my birthday weekend. Uh-oh, big dilemma. Did I want to spend my entire birthday weekend in a 20-hour training, learning how to sit compassionately with dying veterans? My head said “no,” but my heart kept saying “yes,” so eventually, I succumbed to the calling and sent in my registration.
I had my doubts (and subconscious fears?) about my choice all the way up to the day of training, but once it began and I was fully immersed, I realized what a great opportunity for growth I had given myself.
Facing death gives us more life.
The very first evening, we walked through an exercise that took us inside the heart and mind of a terminally-ill patient. It was shockily simple and amazingly deep. It truly made me contemplate what people, beliefs and things are most dear to me and what it would be like to have to gradually give each one of them up. In a feedback session, participants said it made them feel sad, angry, helpless, and more.
How hopelessly unprepared most of us are for the inevitable.
We are all going to die. Life is terminal.
I know we all “know” this – but do we really?
Everything we have is on loan – even our own life. Eventually, it will all be taken from us – or we will give it up willingly. Either way, we are on borrowed time.
Over and over a very unsurprising theme emerged in the training – love is all there really is. Love stays with you, and makes it all worthwhile. I thought to myself, Love is not afraid of Death. She stares unflinchingly in Death’s face and does not bat an eye.
In an exercise on Sunday, we drew a picture of Death and wrote letters to Him and basically got all chummy with the Grim Reaper. In one exercise, we imagined Death writing back to us, and I learned something amazing… Death feels deeply misunderstood and under-appreciated (at least, my version of Death does).
He wanted me to tell everyone that He is not an end point, but a mover, just like Birth. They are a team. Birth moves us “in” and Death moves us “out.” In both cases, we are coming from, or returning to, God/Higher Consciousness. Life is not linear, but a never-ending cycle, just like the seasons.
Still, the awareness of a physical end-point can be a potent reminder to live this temporal life as fully and compassionately as we can.
So what and who do you love? Have you embraced them lately? Connected deeply? If not, I invite you to play a very important game with Death… imagine he is coming to carry you home in 24 hours… what are you compelled to do? Why not do it now?
(And if you your heart is drawn to it, here’s The Twilight Brigade.)