serene ambition™

transforming the culture of aging

Not Afraid to Die

Posted by Jim Selman on 12/14/06

In 1981, I was a member of the California Commission on Aging. Looking back, I find it ironic that, with a couple of exceptions, everyone on the commission was in their 40s. We thought we knew a lot about aging, which was, in retrospect, just plain naïve. The two people in their 60s were seemingly token ‘oldsters’, lending their gray hair to our committee.

One of the things I thought I knew was that everyone, including the old, is afraid to die. As I began to speak with hundreds of older men and women, one common denominator I found was that very few said they were afraid of death, particularly those in their 70s and 80s. What they really feared or were distressed about was dying knowing that they had either wasted the opportunity to have their lives make a difference or had been unable to ‘pass on’ some of what they had learned. It seems the young just don’t listen to many older people … or don’t care.

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche points out that many people are either terrified or in denial of death for the simple reason that they ‘don’t know who they are’. Not knowing who we are and not being able to ‘pass on’ what we’ve learned in our lives seem to me to be different sides of the same coin. My capacity to speak and have others listen isn’t a function of my age, it is a function of my willingness to be responsible for what I have to say and speak with commitment and clarity. It also has to do with my capacity to listen to the concerns of others and have whatever it is I have to offer be relevant to those concerns.

One thing I have learned is that ‘who I am’ is also a function of my commitments and my willingness to be responsible for whatever interpretation of ‘self’ I am living. Everyone dies. But everyone does not relate to death the same way. Whatever our relationship to death, it is a choice—a choice that will affect how we experience living.

I don’t know what the truth about death is. I don’t know if there is an ‘other side’ or if we will be back for more lives. I think I do know who I am, and I find serenity in doing my best—one day at a time. I will leave the larger questions to a Higher Power. And if there isn’t a Higher Power, well then, I’ve found a great deal of strength and satisfaction in imagining the existence of one.

I keep this with my important papers as a message to those who survive me:

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way that you always used. Put no difference in your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is death but a negligent accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well.

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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One Response to “Not Afraid to Die”

  1. 12ve said

    For the past few years our family has been reterming death and dying. We have come to refer to death equally as graduating, or completing.

    As an example we would toast the memory of someone who had died…”here’s to the completion of the magnificent event known as Tom”. Or…”I heard that Tom graduated last week”.

    Using terms that relate to accomplishment (completion), and to preparation/aspiration (graduation) would seem to shift the dying dialogue into something offering a little retro/pro-spection, and some winks of universe, rather than an unpleasant finality.

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