Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity — but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our "biography," our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards… It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?
Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn't that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own? Sogyal Rinpoche
The last two nights I was on-call at the hospital I sat for many hours with patients who were dying. They were in the last hours of their life here on Earth and I was gifted with the chance to be a part of the final leg of their journey. Dying is a lot like being born. It's not easy to do and it's hard to witness, but the overwhelming sense that something sacred is happening takes the edge off the physical realities of the trek.
Death is, as I suspected it would, teaching me a thing or two about living. We get caught up in a lot of meaningless nonsense in our days here, sucked into dramas and have-to's and addictions and lousy old ways and habits that we know perfectly well aren't doing us any good. It's hard to change, as a human, hard to change the flow once the river has carved a deep and familiar path.
I can only know what I see, and what I see in the final hours of life is pretty much one thing: love. Humans loving humans. I sit with old men who cry, sharing stories of their deceased wives; I hold the hands of young people who have cancer and are going to die and don't want to die. And I sit in silence with people during their dying hours. No one ever wants more time so that they can drive their nice car more or earn more money or buy more clothes. When someone is dying, they will cling like hell to life so they can hear the voice of their beloved one more time. Dying people want more chances to have breakfast with their kids. Dying people want to stay alive so they can be with the people they love. Period.
Now's a good time to start thinking about your "endless collection of props." Consider ridding your existence of the junk and then filling that space with things of meaning and worth. Start small; it won't be easy. Bear these words in mind as you go: "You are here to bring light, bringing out the God-colors in the world." (A modern take on Matthew 5:14). It is the biggest deal of our small existence -- facing the realities of the world: the suffering and the pathless mountains and the grief and the stringing together of day after day, and, still, managing to eek out some joy -- knowing that life is hard as hell and loving it all anyway.
Cut out the noise and the crap, figure out what your deal is, what you came here to do, and then shine it out there.
Death is not ugly and it's not terrifying. Death holds the key to life: turn to the people you love and love them more. And then more. And when you can't stand the sight of them and you are exhausted by them and you wonder why they're there in the first place and how you ended up with this ragtag band of needy, neurotic gypsies in your life, love them still more.
I can absolutely, positively promise you that you will not regret it. The truth is that you are going to die in much the same way that you are living. Maybe start that river flowing where you want it to go today.