Some of us have a particularly hard time accepting death. Immediately after U.S. baseball star and national icon Ted Williams died in 2002, his spinal cord was severed and his head was separated from his body. Then both his head and body were coated in a glycerin based solution, placed in a pool of liquid nitrogen, brought to temperature of minus 206.5 degrees Centigrade, and stored in this cryogenically frozen state. This procedure which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, was done at the behest of William’s son, who wanted to believe that his father might someday, when medical science had become far more advanced, be brought back to life.
Most of us find that our difficulties with accepting death takes less dramatic forms, but for all of us facing death can be very hard. “Even the wise fear death,” said the Buddha. “Life clings to life.” There may be some of us who have overcome this fear, but most of us are afraid of dying. There is no shame in this, for it is part of our nature. We all experience the desire to push death away, to pretend life will go on forever.But still, every day on Earth, hundreds of thousands of people die.
The rhythm is as steady as a heartbeat, continuing unabated day and night, winter and summer, everywhere that human beings live. Stephen Levine, who has spent decades counseling the terminally ill, reminds that some people die from starvation while others die from overeating. Some die of thirst, others by drowning. Some die while still children. Others die of old age. Some people die in confusion, suffering from a life that remains to some degree unlived, from a death they cannot accept. Others die in surrender with their minds open and their hearts at peace.
We often make an artificial distinction between “the dying,” by which we mean those who have some idea of the limit that has been placed on their lives, and the rest of us, who have no idea how much time we have left. Thinking this way enables us to avoid thinking about our own dying. If we think about dying people as a separate group, we can imagine that we are not dying. We can pretend that it isn’t happening to us. But every day that passes brings us steadily closer to our death. It is happening to each of us, and it is happening to everyone we know and everyone we love.
There is a story in the Buddhist tradition of a woman whose only son dies. Consumed with grief, she carries the body of her dead child from house to house, asking for medicine to cure him. Some people react with pity, others shun her, but all sense that the pain of losing her son has been too much for her and has driven her insane. Eventually the woman goes to the Buddha and cries out, “Lord, give me the medicine that will bring back my son!”
Buddha answers, “I will help you. But first please bring me a handful of mustard seeds.” The mother is overjoyed, and says she will do so immediately, when the Buddha adds, “But each mustard seed must come from a home which has not known death, from a house where no one has lost a child, a husband, a parent, or a friend.”
The mother again goes from house to house in the village, asking for mustard seeds. Everyone is eager to provide the seeds, but when she asks, ”Did a son or daughter, father or mother, die in your family?” they answer “Alas, yes,” and tell her of the loved ones they have lost. She searches for days, but can find no house in which some beloved person has not died.
Finally, the woman finds herself on a roadside, feeling weary and hopeless. She watches the lights of the town as they flicker and then are extinguished at the end of the day. At last the darkness of the night reigns everywhere, and she sits contemplating the immutable fate of humanity.
When she returns to the Buddha, he says to her: “The life of mortals in this world is troubled and brief and combined with pain. For there is not any means by which those who have been born can avoid dying.” Allowing her pain now to be what it is, the mother buries her son in the forest. No longer denying the truth, she vows to devote the remainder of her life to the nurturance of compassion and wisdom in the world.
John Robbins, Healthy at 100, 2006