What Death Has to Teach Us

Is it possible — regardless of what belief we hold about what happens when someone dies — for us to come together, across diverse faiths and traditions, to recognize the same set of truths, principles and implications for how to use our awareness of death to uplift our consciousness and help us to do our best work during our remaining time in this life? If that is a challenge that intrigues you, then read on.
If I am killed, I can die but once; but to live in constant dread of it, is to die over and over again.
Abraham Lincoln

The cremation ground in Chandigarh, the modern Indian city I grew up in, is located at a discreet distance from the city center. On the rare occasion when our family would find itself driving by it, I would point in its direction and say, “Look! We’re driving by the cremation ground.” My mother would frown and bid my sisters and me to look away. It was her way of loving us. She hoped that by having us shun death, death would shun us as well.

We are made to believe that death is our greatest foe. We live in fear of it because it is unavoidable, unpredictable, irreversible and absolute, wresting us and our loved ones away from everything we possess in this life to which we are so attached.

Fear of death

Part of our fear of death is productive. The fear of the virus, for instance, has made many of us, almost overnight, change a number of deep-set habits. Many of us wear face masks, practice social distancing, meet people on Zoom, observe quiet Friday evenings at home, avoid touching our faces, and diligently sanitize our hands. In more normal conditions, when there is no fear, over ninety percent of people give up on their new year’s resolutions, because behavior change is hard to do when there’s no fear or other motivational force.

But part of our fear of death is unproductive. It distracts us, demoralizes us and diminishes us. Since there is no way to guarantee that death will shun us, what might we gain if we stopped shunning death? In the middle of a speech during the Civil War, President Lincoln was criticized by some for showing respect for Southerners instead of seeing them as enemies that should be destroyed. Lincoln responded with a rhetorical question, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Perhaps we too could destroy our unproductive fear of death by making it our friend.

Keep the prospect of death, exile, and all such apparent tragedies before you every day – especially death – and you will never have an abject thought, or desire anything to excess.

Could death be our friend?

Somerset Maugham once did a retelling of an ancient tale from Mesopotamia where a merchant in Baghdad one day sent his servant to buy provisions from the market. The servant came back, white and trembling, saying, “Just now, when I was in the market-place, I was jostled by someone in the crowd. When I turned I saw it was Death that had jostled me. She looked at me in a threatening way. Please lend me your horse for I wish to ride away from this city to escape my fate. I will go to Samarra so she cannot find me.” The merchant lent the horse, and the servant rode away. Then the merchant went to the marketplace and saw Death standing there in the crowd. “Why did you look at my servant in a threatening way this morning?” he asked her. “That was not a threatening gesture. I was just acting surprised, because I did not expect to see him here in Baghdad.” “Why so? After all, he lives and works here in Baghdad,” said the merchant. “Because,” replied Death, “tonight, I am meant to have an appointment with him in Samarra.”

The first step toward befriending death is to recognize that it is always hiding behind the veil of our existence. There is nothing we can do to shoo it away. When it decides our time is up, it will pull up the veil and come in to claim us, however powerful we may be. So perhaps we should lift the veil ourselves, look at it in the eye, and make peace with it.

On some occasions, during my meditation practice, I visualize that the time has come for me to pass on. I imagine myself having to walk out of the world I have lived in all these years, out of the lives of the people I have loved, out of every aspect of my mortal identity, out of my own body. How would I respond?

Powerful and unexpected realizations arise within me. “Oh! You should have helped strengthen this one quality in yourself. You should have further prepared your daughter for the world in this way or that way. You should have meditated more. You should have offered more gratitude to those who loved and supported you.” There are other, more positive realizations too. “I have lived a blessed and meaningful life. I have pursued my purpose. I’m so grateful for all the love I received. Now I will finally experience what lies beyond. I have gone on this same road before. There is nothing to fear. My spirit is ready for this journey into the vast beyond.”

Knowing that my life might end any day gives me a clearer view of what is true to me and a surging desire to act in harmony with this truth. I become free and alive – free from social impositions and idle hungers and alive to the need to make every moment count. Steve Jobs would have agreed. He once said: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” Steve had a practice not dissimilar to my own. “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

This kinship with his own mortality guided Steve to have the courage to be true to himself. Once he visited Stanford University to give a talk to the MBA students, and a student, Laurene, caught his eye. As he was departing, he noticed her again, but then remembered he had to be at a business meeting. “I was in the parking lot with the key in the car, and I thought to myself, ‘If this is my last night on earth, would I rather spend it at a business meeting or with this woman?’ I ran across the parking lot, asked her if she’d have dinner with me. She said yes, we walked into town and we’ve been together ever since.”

A recent article in Scientific American states “Across a series of research studies, Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and co-authors have shown that…once life’s fragility becomes a personal truth instead of a philosophical concept that happens to ‘other people,’ we become more capable of celebrating whatever days and experiences remain to us instead of focusing on everyday hassles. Acknowledging our impermanence makes us more mindful of life’s small moments and our relationships with others.”…American rabbi Joshua L. Liebman writes in his book Peace of Mind, “Death is not the enemy of life, but its friend, for it is the knowledge that our years are limited which makes them so precious.”

Losing a loved one

There is great power also in staying ever-mindful of the possibility of death claiming a loved one – instead of claiming us. It makes us more appreciative of the moments we have with them. We all are guilty of being occasionally distracted, disengaged or disgruntled in the presence of others. Not because we do not love them, but because we do not feel the need to always give them our hundred percent. We expect to have many more opportunities with them tomorrow, the day after, and beyond. But if you were to acknowledge death as an ever-present possibility, you might approach each interaction with a loved one as one that could turn out to be the last. Then would you not take it more seriously and give it your all? Would they not welcome that additional warmth, grace and patience you might bring to the encounter? And when you wrap up a beautiful moment with them, you could whisper a silent “thank you” to your new-found awareness of death for motivating you to give your best in all moments.    

After a visit to my parents a few years ago, I was waving a rushed goodbye to my father on my way out. “I will see you again in a few weeks, dad.” I said. Then a thought crossed my mind: “What if there is no next time?” He was eighty-five, and in reasonably good health, so there was no reason to feel this way, but I recognized in that moment the ever-present possibility of death in our lives. I stopped in my tracks, turned and walked toward him, held his hand in my own, and after an unhurried silence, said softly, “Love you, dad. See you soon.” I felt a powerful wave of affection emanating from his deep-set eyes. We both savored the moment. Then I flew to New York, and four days later I received an early morning call from my mother. “Son, I have some news. Your father passed away an hour ago.”

I returned to Chandigarh. This time, my mother did not bid my sisters and me to look away as we drove to the same cremation ground we had passed by innocently as children. There is much I miss about my father and much I wish I could have said to him and done for him in life, but this much is clear – I do not regret where my heart and mind were when I held his hand during those treasured moments that turned out to be our last.

Now you might say, “You got lucky, Hitendra – you got that last moment with your dad. In my case, someone I have dearly loved passed away quite suddenly. I did not have that opportunity to be prepared for it or be present for it. How can death be my friend when it summoned them away from life so abruptly?”

I understand. The card of death is the harshest in life’s deck. It is but human to feel the pain of separation when we lose someone we love. And yet, some of the students and executives in my Personal Leadership & Success course at Columbia Business School have shared personal journeys where untimely loss led them, over time, to unexpected riches. The pain someone feels in losing a loved one is a powerful energy, and once the initial shock and grief have been soothed by the passage of time and by one’s own fortitude, some people find a way to direct this energy toward a positive end. A student once shared how he had felt strong grief after the passing of a loved one, but then he realized that the only reason for that grief was because he had been so blessed having had this beautiful friend in his life during her time on earth; if their friendship had not been as special an experience, her loss would not have mattered as much. This realization helped him translate his pain into a feeling of gratitude for the time he got with her. Other students have shared how the loss of a loved one gave them greater motivation to treasure the time they have left with other loved ones, made them take one virtue they really admired in that person and strive to practice it in their own life, or made them more empathetic to the pain other people go through when they lose someone. One Columbia alum, a senior executive at a major New York bank, once told me, “My wife and I lost our daughter when she was three. For some months after her passing, we were inconsolable. What finally got us to make peace with her loss and move on was an orphanage we started in her memory.”

The loss of a loved one is irreplaceable, but the grief we feel can become more bearable when it is infused with meaning, when our pain can stand for something. Viktor Frankl, who started a school of psychotherapy focused on helping people find meaning in suffering, shared the following story. “Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him?” Frankl asked the bereaved man a question: “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Frankl then observed to the man how he had spared his wife this suffering. One of them had to die first, and by surviving his wife, he would need to mourn her so she was spared the pain of mourning him. “He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Experience of dying

But what about the process of dying? It is revealing – and reassuring – to study the research on near-death experiences (NDEs). These are experiences where people have come very close to dying during an accident or health crisis, where their heart and brain temporarily shut down. Some telling insights emerge from interviewing people who recover from such experiences. 80% of people report a feeling of peacefulness about the near-death experience. When a group of cardiac arrest patients were investigated 2- and then 8-years after their near-death experience, they showed a greater likelihood to have a reduced fear of death, have an increased belief in life after death, take greater interest in the meaning of life, have greater acceptance of others, and be more loving and empathetic. Here’s a powerful story related by Dr. Kenneth Ring, a pre-eminent researcher in the discipline, on why NDEs make people grow in their empathy. Remarkably, these changes emerged from something they experienced only for a few minutes.

When the time finally came for Steve Jobs to die, he “looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.” How must he have felt in those final moments where he was shedding all earthly possessions, attachments and identities to become finally, as he had put it, “naked”? We may never know, though we do have a piece of evidence from his sister Patty. “Steve’s final words were: Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

If we follow Gandhi’s precept of “live as if you will die tomorrow”, being ever mindful of our highest aspirations and duties and never taking the moments of life for granted, perhaps we will find that when Death finally makes its appointment with us at our own Samarra, we are packed and prepared for the journey that lies ahead.  

Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”  
Rabindranath Tagore