Death: From Gatecrasher to Guest.
It’s something no one wants to talk about, let alone deal with. Something that will happen to all of us, but is denied up until the day it happens.
As a culture, we have only further rejected the conversation with death. We squirm in our seats, contort some sort of sympathetic face, and quickly change the topic any time it arises. There is an immense amount of visible discomfort.
My conversation with my own death started when I was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer at age 21. Being young, naïve, and in college, I went through standard treatment, found some integrative doctors, maneuvered my goals and life a little, and then basically went back to living like it didn’t really happen.
Then—boom—two years later the cancer was back, knocking at the door, still stage 1. I did the dance again, this time a little different, and on my own terms, but again, any chance I had I was tucking cancer, death, and fear into boxes in the corners, and “going about my life.”
A little time passed, with life moving at its normal trajectory, before cancer decided not to knock this time—rude—and just kicked down the damn door: stage 4 breast cancer metastasized to both lungs at age 27. Statistically, I had 18 months left. Yikes. So, I went back to my tidy boxes in the corners of my mind, unpacked them, and decided I needed to look at their contents.
As I started to open up to people about the internal dialogue in my head, I began to notice, perhaps it wasn’t just me who tucked those boxes away. Perhaps it was more of a cultural issue than a personal one. The more I dug for comfort in conversation, the less I found.
So it brought me to wondering: Why can’t we create a more comfortable relationship with death?
It’s not something that stands alone in the medical field. It’s not something that only happens to some people. It’s not unique to cancer. It’s not just old people. Not just the sick. Not just family. Not just people. So, why can’t we have a more light-hearted discourse with our universal fate?
The conversation becomes all the more beneficial the sooner we start to have it. Before we are diagnosed with a terminal illness. Before we lose a loved one to a car crash. Before grandma dies in her sleep. Because if we start to talk about it before we find ourselves thrown into these grief ridden states, we don’t go into the conversation with negative connotations.
We don’t go into the conversation already accusing death of being a thief, accusing death of stealing our loved ones, of stealing our youth. If we start to shift the relationship with death, suddenly our relationship with life begins to change. Because that’s the thing—they don’t exist without each other. They are woven, tangled, dependent.
I believe the more we talk about death with ourselves and with each other, the more we learn about ourselves and each other. We learn what our truest expectations are from this life. We learn what is serving our time well, and what we need to shift. We examine what our anxieties are, and can gain perspective about how small these worries really are.
We learn about the wishes of the ones we love, what they really want when they pass. We gain respect. We lessen the stress of the unknown when someone passes. We ease the transition of our own passing. We gain insight on how to live a better, more fulfilled life. And, we begin to understand the most poignant type of beauty is that which is fleeting.
So, as a terminally ill 20-something, my advice is this: Invite death to dinner. Unlock the door and leave it wide open. Don’t let it sneak up on you. Don’t let it kick down the door.
And you know, after dinner, maybe even serve it some pie and ice cream.
Author: Mackenzie E. Rockcastle
Image: Author’s Own