Preparing For The Dying Of The Light: Helping Writers Make Sense of Death

Dedicated to Family and Friends who’ve recently lost loved ones.

In the past few months I have witnessed close family members and friends lose their loved ones.

Although these events have been pressing deeply on my mind recently, I was hesitant to bring up the topic of death with you because of our cultural tendency to avoid the topic all together.

For those of us who have lost loved ones, it is true that we would rather not hear about death, or be reminded of it, because it brings up too many painful emotions we’d rather not deal with at the moment.

For those of us who have not lost someone close to us, we’d rather not hear of death because we fear the unknown. We prefer to deal with death when we absolutely have to, at some later date.

But I’m a writer, and it’s my job to speak about what’s on people’s minds, even if it’s not currently on their tongues.

Preparing For Death While We’re Still Alive

The Tibetan Book of The Living and Dying says we must prepare for death long before it arrives. In fact, for Tibetan Buddhists, there is a book that is read to the dying person in order to guide him or her from this life into the after life. The book is called The Tibetan Book of The Dead. A spiritual guide follows the practices outlined in this book as he helps the dying soul to the other side.

For Tibetan Buddhists, there is great fear that if the dying person is not guided properly, he or she could end up in The Bardo—a sort of limbo, or purgatory–a place “in between” this life and “the other.”

This is how seriously Tibetans take the preparation for the end of life.

It is a stark contrast to American culture, which, with the exception of some religious organizations, gives us no tradition we can follow that can adequately prepare us for death while we’re still alive.

Tibetan Buddhists, on the other hand, believe we must prepare for death every day we live.

This belief once seemed very dark to me, but, having lately witnessed death more often than usual, I see that the Tibetans are right: we do ourselves great harm in not preparing for our deaths while we’re still live.

Because the truth is that I will die one day, and so will you.

And yet how often do we sit with that truth for a long period of time? Probably not very often.

But if we did sit with that truth, I’m not so sure we would become scared as much as we might become thoughtful. Instead of growing anxious, we might begin to truly ask ourselves what we want to do with the precious life we have been given.

Because we should never forget that every breath is a blessing.

Why Life Is A Blessing

I had the unfortunate experience of visiting the children’s area of a cemetery not too long ago. It is a place I’ve never visited before and I hope I will never have to visit again.

As I walked in between the small tombstones, my eyes happened to fall upon the heartbreaking dates engraved on the marble:

“July 2001 – July 2001, August 2000 – August 2000, September 1999 – September 1999, etc.”

It was to my great shock that I realized that these souls had not been given more than a few months to live on this earth.

It took me only a few hours after I visited the cemetery (and after the shock had worn off) that I realized how petty we, the living, can be.

I thought:  how is it that we, the living, have the audacity to complain?

We have the audacity to get caught up in the petty details like paying our bills, or fighting with our significant others, or getting stuck in traffic, or facing the failure of government to solve our problems.

And yet, if the angels whose names were on those tombstones could speak, they would beg—beg—for the chance you have been given to live your life to its fullest.

Our life is no joke; and yet sometimes, we, the spoiled living, treat it as such.

How dare we.

Wouldn’t those who have passed away want us to cherish our life, instead of curse it? Wouldn’t those who have passed away want us to smile, laugh, and play? Wouldn’t they want us to honor their deaths, by mourning them, but then by moving on and enjoying the precious life we have been given?

How Death Reminds Us To Live

I am often told that I am wise beyond my years.

But, please tell me: am I to wait until I’m old and grey to become wise? 

How do I know I will live long enough to gain the wisdom I had brushed foolishly aside when I was younger? Am I to feel so entitled to believe that I am guaranteed the gift of old age?

Tell me: why not acquire wisdom now when I can use it and cherish it, instead of wait for a time when I might not even be around to be blessed with it?

Tell me: why do we wait so long to become wise, anyway? What are we waiting for?

Wisdom is everywhere. Simply seek it and you will find it.

I say this not with malice, but with great earnestness. Why do we wait? Why does anyone wait to gain wisdom? Wisdom should be sought after as soon as we are aware that it exists, because we never know how long we have on this earth to utilize wisdom’s precious gifts and share this wisdom with everyone we know.

And when we do gain wisdom, why do we wait so long to share it with others?

To paraphrase the late, great John O’Donahue:

“When’s the last time you said something that changed someone’s life for the better? When’s the last time you said something that brought someone absolute delight and joy? When’s the last time you spoke with words that transformed a person’s entire being?”

These are the only questions that are worth asking ourselves, especially when confronting the realness, and rawness, of death.

You see, when we walk with death (instead of ignore it, delay it, or deny it) suddenly death becomes a companion that reminds us of how weighty our words really are, how fleeting this one breath is, how brutal the turn of the clock really is.

To live a great life we must face the nature of death. We must understand that death will not wait for us to find the convenient time to write that book we’ve been postponing.

No, death will swoop in and take you when it damn well pleases.

And it doesn’t care if you’re ready or not.

The job of preparing yourself for your ultimate end is yours and yours alone.

Greeting Death With A Smile

If the above comment seemed like a grim statement, I recommend taking the approach towards death that the Mexican culture practices during the annual Day of The Dead festival.

It’s tradition in Mexico, during the Dia De Los Muertos festival, to portray the dead as skeletons wearing their best dresses and suits, smiling and having fun. Death is approached in a playful manner in Mexico. This practice may seem appalling and disturbing to American culture, but I think if we meet death with a smile, just like the Mexicans do, we might find that death is not so frightening.

We might also find death a bit easier to cope with.

Mexican culture inherited the tradition of greeting death in a playful manner from the ancient Aztecs.

I believe the Aztecs intuitively knew that when we smile at death, in a strange way, we honor the dead. We honor them because we are greeting death as a companion who reminds of why we’re so important, of why life is not to be wasted, of why our time with our loved ones should not be squandered and, most importantly, of why living is totally worth it.

Preparing For The Dying of The Light

Shakespeare was right in referring to the pain of life as the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” For those of us who have lived long enough, the amount of “shocks” we’ve had to endure could certainly add to a thousand or more.

But maybe the totality of these shocks could, perhaps, be endured if we are reminded that these “shocks” will not last. Maybe the totality of these shocks could, perhaps, be endured if we are reminded that these thousand natural  “shocks” are always paired with a thousand natural “delights” that we can cherish.

For when death finally does comes for us, we will depart both the shock and the joy of life; and although we can all agree that we can do without the shocks, we can also agree that we will certainly miss the joys.

So while we’re still alive, let us cherish our joys rather than focus too much on our shocks.

If only, at the very least, to honor our loved ones that have passed.

much love,

Ollin

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24 comments on “Preparing For The Dying Of The Light: Helping Writers Make Sense of Death

  1. Linda Burke says:

    Awesome article today.

    This is my favorite poem about death: http://www.poetseers.org/poem_of_the_day_archive/twoth/do_not_stand_at_my_grave_and_w

    If the link doesn’t work, you can Google: Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep.

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks for sharing. The link doesn’t work but I’ll look it up on Google. Thanks!

      • Ollin says:

        “Do not stand at my grave and weep
        I am not there. I do not sleep.
        I am a thousand winds that blow.
        I am the diamond glints on snow.
        I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
        I am the gentle autumn rain.
        When you awaken in the morning’s hush
        I am the swift uplifting rush.
        Of quiet birds in circled flight.
        I am the soft stars that shine at night.
        Do not stand at my grave and cry;
        I am not there. I did not die.” – Mary Frye

        Just had to share. That’s amazing.

  2. Christina says:

    I know what you mean by honoring the people you’ve loved who have passed.

    My grandmother was one of those people, and I still think of her every single day. I talk to her at times as well (I realize that might seem weird!), and she’s been gone 14 years. I live in a way she’d be proud of. Not in the sense of living my life in a way that fits someone else’s opinion, but I try to live up to the truth of my existence. And I think she’d like that.

    Your post reminds me of the movie Dead Poets Society, and Carpe Diem.

    • Ollin says:

      Ah, no I don’t think that’s crazy. I loved my grandmother very much, too. And I was thinking of her as I wrote this piece. She died around four years ago. I miss her greatly, but she does remind me to live my life to the fullest.

  3. Christina says:

    A totally irrelevant question: I know you write fantasy, but is it MG/YA or for adults? And what are your favorite fantasy books?

  4. Victoria says:

    Another poignant essay, my dear Ollin. My mother died about a year ago and as I sat with her as she died I knew it would be the hardest thing I have ever done. Then when I returned home I started writing about my experience and writing about my mother and trying my hardest to face my own coming death. I’m still trying. Thank you once again for reminding me to keep “death on my shoulder” (as Castenada’s Don Juan says) and to embrace the joys of living.

    • Ollin says:

      What a wonderful phrase, keeping death on your shoulder. That’s a great tip so we are always reminded of the preciousness of life.

  5. Those tombstones are the hardest part of the entire post to read. There is such a need in this world for good and caring adults, with ideas to solve our problems. Those little ones could have been it…

  6. Thank you Ollin for writing about the subject of death. I believe as a christian that we must be prepared for death by knowing that our days are numbered here on Earth, and by preparing for eternity. I agree, that within our society we look only to life and ignore death many times. When death does come, many times we are either in shock or ignore it as if it did not happen. This subject has been on my heart lately and so I had just written about the subject as well in a recent blog post of mine. I invite anyone to read it, I feel it will offer comfort and solice to those who are hurting and for those who might be lost in grief. My blog post: http://eyeonasparrow.blogspot.com/2011/08/we-all-passers-by-guests-in-this-world.html

  7. Nura says:

    Ollin:

    I have lived my entire life with “diseases” that will definately shorten my life span. Dispite all of them, I’ve officially lived 27 years beyond my “expected” shelf life. The knowledge that I may not have a someday has always been with me. I also have “grown wise beyond my years” according to some. But more than anything else, all of this has taught me to life fearlessly and not put off my dreams. Deep down inside I know that this is how we all should live – for you are correct, death may step in at any moment and the real tragedy of that would be to leave this world thinking: I wish I had…

  8. Amazing Ollin, I still have tears in my eyes. As I tossed and turned last night I though of three people that passed this year and would not see until I have passed on, so I hugged two and said goodbye…I guess I still have to say bye to my childhood friend but that will come in time.

    The most recent story I like about death is ‘The Tale of the three brothers,” as child’s tale within the book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

    “And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, as equals, they departed this life.”

    http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/The_Tale_of_the_Three_Brothers

    • Ollin says:

      Thanks Maggie, I was actually thinking about that story. J.K. Rowling has some really great wisdom to share about death and I think it’s a central theme to her novels. Thanks for sharing!

  9. My hands are clapping for this beautiful post, Ollin. I am very familiar with the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche and try to live my life according to the words within that wonderful book.

    • Ollin says:

      Isn’t it a wonderful book? Changed my life so much. It was the first book I read about buddhism and really my first plunge back into spirituality after I really had none for about 4 years or so. Thank you for your kind words.

  10. karenselliott says:

    Well said, Ollin. You are wise beyond your years.

  11. […] and prolific) radar, Ollin Morales has posted what I thought was an extremely interesting consideration of death, and the many cultural forms it takes. As is his wont, it’s geared towards writers. I […]

  12. Tammy says:

    Great post Ollin about a topic that many do not like to confront. As a survivor, I feel that I have confronted it and in many ways, have thought about it so much more. I like the Tibetans philosophy. We never know when it will happen and we should always be prepared to walk from this life – complete.

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